Undesigned Coincidences and New Testament Reliability

One fascinating line of evidence for the reliability of the Gospels is undesigned coincidences. An undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that does not seem to have been planned by the individuals giving the account – it is when two or more accounts or texts interlock at a point, fitting together like pieces of a puzzle, so that one account or text clarifies or explains a detail in another.[1]

Undesigned coincidences are what one expects from eyewitness testimonies. In fact, undesigned coincidences between different eyewitness accounts aid investigators in arriving at a more complete picture of how an event transpired, and in some cases, can even lead to the resolution of a case. James Warner Wallace, a Los Angeles homicide detective, comments: 

Often, questions an eyewitness raises at the time of the crime are left unanswered until we locate an additional witness years later. This is a common characteristic of true, reliable eyewitness accounts.[2]

It’s my job to assemble the complete picture of what happened at the scene. No single witness is likely to have seen every detail, so I must piece together the accounts, allowing the observations of one eyewitness to fill in the gaps that may exist in the observations of another eyewitness. … True, reliable eyewitness accounts are never completely parallel and identical. Instead, they are different pieces of the same puzzle, unintentionally supporting and complementing each other to provide all the details related to what really happened.[3]

1. Undesigned coincidences in the Gospels

Undesigned coincidences are found between Gospels (as well as between Paul’s letters and Acts as we shall see in a later section). In this section, I will provide a number of examples of undesigned coincidences in the Gospel accounts. For our first example, let us look at Matthew’s account of Herod’s thoughts about Jesus.

1.1. Herod on Jesus

In Matt 14:1-2, Herod hears of Jesus and his miracles and is disconcerted by  the thought that Jesus may have been John the Baptist (whom Herod had executed) raised from the dead:

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He had been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him”.

Matthew mentions that Herod said this to servants but how did the early Church know what Herod said to members of his household? The answer is found in an unrelated passage in Luke 8:1-3:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

This passage is not about Herod in any way. Luke is merely listing those who accompanied Jesus at a point in his ministry. Among these he mentions Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager.

1.2. The feeding of the five thousand

Undesigned coincidences cluster in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, which is the only miracle in the Gospels, other than resurrection, to be recorded in all four Gospels. 

Mark introduces the feeding of the five thousand by mentioning Jesus’ attempt to get away from the crowds with his disciples after the Twelve returned from a preaching mission (Mk 6:30-31): 

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Reading the verses initially, one might assume that the reference to “many coming and going” is an allusion to the fact that Jesus was often followed by crowds, and as the passage continues, Mark does say that the crowds found a way to follow Jesus (Mk 6:33-35). The phrase “many coming and going”, however, is slightly odd as a description of Jesus’ popularity alone and suggests that there was another reason for the bustle of people in the vicinity. We find this other reason in John’s introduction of the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:1-4):

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.

In passing, John mentions that this occurred just before Passover. As Passover was approaching, Jews would have been on the roads traveling to Jerusalem in large numbers. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus estimates that there were almost three million Jews in Jerusalem for Passover during the reign of Nero. The event taking place just before Passover, as John notes, explains the bustling of people in Mark.  

For the second undesigned coincidence, three Gospels mention that there was grass in the place where the feeding of the five thousand took place (Mk 6:39; Matt 14:19; Jn 6:10) but only Mark mentions the grass’ green color. The grass is not generally green in the region but it is green in the spring, which encompasses the time of Passover. 

Moving on to the third undesigned coincidence, prior to the miracle, John notes that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread for the people. Reading the account, one could ask “why Philip?”. Philip was not one of the more prominent disciples (Peter, James, and John) nor was he the treasurer of the group (Judas). Was it just by chance that Philip was chosen? Possibly, but a much better answer is found when one looks at Luke’s account of the miracle, as well as a passage in John. Luke mentions that the miracle took place near the town of Bethsaida (Lk 9:10) while John, in a passage unrelated to the feeding of the five thousand, mentions that Philip was from Bethsaida (Jn 1:43-44).

For the fourth undesigned coincidence, all four Gospels note that roughly five thousand men were fed after the miracle. Matthew says “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matt 14:21), while Mark, Matthew, and John say about five thousand men, but do not add “besides women and children”. Two of the Gospels, Mark and Luke, give some idea of how the estimate of five thousand was calculated. Mark and Luke mention that Jesus ordered “them all” (Mk 6:39)/”them” (Lk 9:14) to sit down in groups by hundreds and by fifties. Having the crowd sorted into groups made it easier to distribute food to them. It also made it possible to get some idea of how many people there were. However, one still wonders why the Gospels give their count exclusively in terms of the number of males fed. As McGrew observes:

Notice that Mark and Luke could be taken to mean that Jesus had all the people sit down. Yet one would have thought that if all the people — men, women, and children — sat down in groups of approximately fifty to a hundred, the Gospels would not give their count exclusively in terms of number of males fed, especially not as emphatically as Matthew does.[4]

 John does not mention the groupings by hundreds and fifties, as Mark and Luke do, but his account adds the crucial piece to the puzzle – attesting that Jesus called to “Have the people sit down”, and that “the men sat down, about five thousand in number” (Jn 6:10-11). Then the food was distributed to the men and from them, to the women and children. This explains how the men could be approximately counted, leaving the number of women and children undetermined. As McGrew notes:

This is an intricate coincidence and a mentally satisfying one, depending as it does on subtle indications in various texts. Beyond this, it is true to human nature. It is extremely difficult to imagine getting a milling crowd of such a size, including children, who were no doubt running about and playing, all to sit down on the grass at the same time …  It is impressive enough that, in a world without sound systems or megaphones, the disciples were able to get even the men seated in groups of about fifty to a hundred. Not attempting to seat the children, and leaving the women free to look after them would be only common sense in the culture and context.[5]

1.3. Why the foot washing?

According to John, during the Last Supper, Jesus did something unusual: he washed his disciple’s feet in a very deliberate and even formal manner (Jn 13:1-15), “taking upon himself a servant’s garb and role”[6]:

Now before the Feast of the Passover … [Jesus] rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. … When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you … If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Reading John’s account, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is done out of the blue. Of course, Jesus may have decided to teach this lesson about humility and servant leadership on that night for no special reason but we find information in another gospel that explains why Jesus chose to teach that lesson on that night in particular. During the Last Supper, Luke notes that a dispute arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest (Lk 22:24-27), presumably, about who was to hold the highest stature when Jesus established His kingdom (see Mk 9:33-37; Matt 18:1-14; Matt 20:20-21):

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

The foot-washing in John is explained – in response to the subject of the dispute among the disciples that evening, Jesus gave a lesson on humility and servant leadership. John never mentions the dispute among the disciples and Luke does not mention the foot-washing but together, the full picture emerges. In this undesigned coincidence, Luke explains the foot-washing in John. Within the same passage, however, there is another undesigned coincidence – this time, in the other direction – wherein John explains information in Luke. 

In Lk 22:27, Jesus says to his disciples: “But I am among you as the one who serves”. To what, however, does this statement refer? Jesus does not do anything servant-like in Luke. John’s account of the foot-washing fills in this gap, explaining Luke. The two passages fit together “extremely tightly” – Luke explains John, and John explains Luke.[7]

1.4. Prophesy, who hit you?

In Matt 26:67-68, at the conclusion of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, people were said to have hit Jesus and asked Jesus to prophesy “who” hit him (Matt 26:67-68):

Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?.

The mocking challenge is quite odd if Jesus could see who hit him but Luke’s account notes that Jesus was blindfolded (Lk 22:64):

They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy Who hit you?.

This detail in Luke sheds light on the mockery in Matthew’s account.

1.5. The Jewish leaders, Jesus, and Pilate

There are three undesigned coincidences in the discussion between the Jewish leaders, Jesus, and Pilate. 

Mark, Matthew, and John note that the Jewish leadership brought Jesus to Pilate, and that Pilate proceeded to question Jesus, asking Jesus if he was “the king of the Jews”. Reading Mark, Matthew, and John’s accounts, one wonders what made Pilate think that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews? Not a word is said in these Gospels about sedition or any other political accusation being leveled against Jesus. Luke’s account sheds light on this matter (Lk 23:1-4):

Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”. And he answered him, “You have said so”.

Luke attests that the Jewish leaders brought Jesus before Pilate and accused Jesus of sedition against Rome – that Jesus claimed to be Christ (i.e. the Messiah), a king. This explains why Pilate had to get involved and ask Jesus if he was the king of the Jews.  

For the second undesigned coincidence, we turn our focus to Jesus’ response to Pilate’s inquiry, as well as Pilate’s initial verdict of Jesus as not guilty, using Luke’s account (Lk 23:3-4): 

And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”. And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.

Given the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, Pilate’s initial verdict of not guilty is odd, since based on the accounts, Jesus did not reject the charge, saying “You have said so” (Mk 15:2; Matt 27:11; Lk 23:3). As McGrew notes:

[Jesus’] answer is variously translated. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates his answer, “It is as you say,” treating it as an idiom rather like our American expression, “You said it.” The English Standard Version (ESV), quoted above [(“You have said so”)], translates his words strictly literally, allowing the expression to be taken as an ambiguous refusal to reply to the charge. Such ambiguity by itself was cheeky, at a minimum, in response to an accusation of a kind that Pilate, as the Roman governor, was bound to treat seriously. In neither case is there any explanation for Pilate’s going back to the crowds and stating that he finds Jesus innocent. Why does Pilate not even question Jesus further? Why does he seem so unfazed by Jesus’ reply? Why does he go so far as to declare Jesus free of all guilt concerning the charge?[8]

The answers to the questions McGrew raises are found in John’s account which reads (Jn 18:33-38): 

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”. Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” … [Pilate] went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him…”

Jesus notes that his kingdom is not of this world and that he is not encouraging the use of physical force to achieve his aims – explaining Pilate’s conclusion that Jesus is not guilty in the eyes of Roman law. 

The third undesigned coincidence pertains once more to Jesus’ answer to Pilate, as well as the maiming of a servant of the high priest at Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane. As just discussed, when Pilate asks Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, Jesus notes that his kingdom is not of this world, and to support his statement, Jesus refers to the fact that his disciples were not fighting during his arrest (Jn 18:36):

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

Reading John, one wonders why Jesus would make this argument, given that John recounts Peter as having cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest, named Malchus (Jn 18:10), at the time of Jesus’ arrest. Based on John, why would Jesus make this argument knowing that evidence of violence (i.e. Malchus’ injury) could be produced against him? Like John, Mark and Matthew both attest that a servant of the high priest was maimed (Mk 14:47; Matt 26:51). An answer as to why Jesus makes this argument is provided in Luke, who attests that a servant of the high priest’s ear was cut off but also that this servant’s ear was healed by Jesus (Lk 22:50-51):

And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Jesus’ healing in Luke provides explanatory power to, and coheres with, Jesus’ response to Pilate in John. This undesigned coincidence, which cuts across different periscopes, also provides positive evidence for Jesus’ healing of Malchus.

1.6. Conclusion: undesigned coincidences in the Gospels

Undesigned coincidences provide another stream of evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels – pointing to the Gospel accounts being based on eyewitness testimony or tradition based on eyewitness testimony. The casual, subtle, interlocking of details in the Gospels are not what one typically finds in ancient fiction. They are, however, a feature of historical reportage. 

A notable point is that a good number of undesigned coincidences cut across two or more periscopes (e.g. Herod on Jesus, Jesus asking Philip prior to the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus’ response to Pilate in light of Malchus being healed, etc.). These especially argue against the accounts being invented.[9] Another notable point is that the gospel of John has the largest number of undesigned coincidences – with the Synoptics explaining John, John explaining the Synoptics, or an account in John being clarified or explained by another account in his gospel.[10]  

Other than the undesigned coincidences discussed here, philosopher Lydia McGrew has documented seventeen more undesigned coincidences in the Gospels in her book Hidden in Plain View (2018). Undesigned coincidences, taken all together, form a compelling cumulative case for the reliability of the Gospels.

2. Undesigned coincidences between Acts and Paul’s letters

There are also undesigned coincidences between Acts and Paul’s letters. In this section, I will provide a number of examples of undesigned coincidences between both of these texts.

2.1. Paul’s funding in Corinth

In Acts 18:3-5, Luke notes that Paul made tents during the working week to support himself in Corinth while preaching on the Sabbath, but when Silas and Timothy came down to Corinth from Macedonia, Paul began to devote himself completely to the word:

… Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

This makes one wonder – why the sudden change? What was it about Silas and Timothy coming to Corinth that made Paul devote himself exclusively to preaching? The answer is found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:7-9):

Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed.

When Silas and Timothy came down to Corinth from Macedonia, they brought with them a gift of money, which allowed Paul to devote himself completely to preaching the good news. 

2.2. Timothy’s religious upbringing

In second Timothy, Paul praises Timothy’s religious upbringing (II Tim 1:5; 3:14-15):

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well … But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Based on these verses, one infers that Timothy grew up with a knowledge of the Jewish scriptures as a result of his family. Timothy’s grandmother and mother are noted as significant religious influences within Timothy’s family but Timothy’s father is not mentioned, leading to the inference that perhaps Timothy’s father died when Timothy was young or that he was a Gentile. The reason for the exclusion of Timothy’s father in Paul’s named list of those whose faith has been a model to Timothy is found in Acts. As Luke notes in his second volume (Acts 16:1-3)

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named TImothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Acts attests that Timothy’s mom was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that Timothy’s father was a Gentile of Greek ethnicity, resulting in Timothy’s not having been circumcised in infancy.

2.3. “When Timothy comes…”

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he informs the church that he had already sent Timothy to them. However, later in the same letter, Paul indicates that he expects the letter he is currently writing to reach the Corinthian church first prior to Timothy’s arrival  (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10):

That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church … When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am.

From these verses, one infers that Timothy is taking some indirect route to Corinth. 

In the same letter, one learns that Paul wrote first Corinthians in Ephesus in Asia minor, that Paul was planning to stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, and that Paul planned a future trip to Corinth passing through Macedonia (1 Cor 16:5-9):

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter … But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me… 

In a wonderful connection with Paul’s letters, Acts attests that Paul was in Ephesus, that he stayed in Ephesus for some time, that he planned to pass through Macedonia on a future trip, and relevant to this undesigned coincidence, that he sent Timothy and Erastus ahead on a missionary journey, with a stop of theirs being Macedonia (Acts 19:1; 19:21-22):

… Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus … Now after these events Paul, resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome”. And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

Putting together the information from Paul’s letter and Acts, Timothy was headed to the Corinth through Macedonia (and Paul planned a future trip to Corinth passing through Macedonia as well). Ultimately, Acts confirms that Timothy did take an indirect route to Corinth, traveling in an “arc-shaped route” along the coast of the Aegean Sea, going from Ephesus to Macedonia, and to Corinth. Presumably, Paul expected his letter to reach the Corinthian church before Timothy, who was already traveling, because Paul’s letter would be sent to Corinth via sea. There was a direct sea route between Ephesus and Corinth.[11] Both cities, in fact, were major centers of trade. With a good wind, a letter could reach Corinth from Ephesus fairly quickly. 

2.4. The activities of Apollos

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he repeatedly mentions a person named Apollos, stressing his and Apollos’ unity as followers of Jesus, and insisting that Christians should not break up into factions centered on, among others, himself and Apollos (1 Cor 1:11-13; 3:4-7):

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? … For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, and the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

The sentence “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” implies that Paul worked in Corinth first then Apollos came later and worked as well. This is corroborated by Acts 18:18-19:1:

Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila …  Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures … And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed … And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus.  

Acts states that Apollos came to Ephesus, crossed over to Greece at Achaia, and at one point, worked at Corinth, and that Apollos’ work at Corinth came after Paul’s work in the city.

2.5. What is with Barnabas and Mark?

Acts attests to Paul and Barnabas having a strong disagreement, which resulted in their group splitting up (Acts 15:36-40):

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are”. Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.

Before anything else, it must be noted that the account of the disagreement in Acts fits Paul’s character very well  as it emerges in his letters – a zealous and exacting person. As McGrew notes, the Paul “would be unwilling to have John Mark on another journey after he turned back from a previous one is only too plausible”.[12]

With that said, reading these verses, a possible reason for Barnabas’ advocacy of Mark as a travel companion is that Barnabas may have thought that Paul was being too harsh, and that Mark would be helpful in the upcoming journey. In fact, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which is dated after this period in Acts, Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark due to his usefulness in ministry (2 Tim 4:11). Although Mark’s usefulness may have been one of the reasons for Barnabas’ advocacy of Mark, it is only a part of the explanation. Another reason for Barnabas’ advocacy of Mark emerges when we turn to Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is also called Justus.

Mark is Barnabas’ cousin – explaining why Barnabas was firm in insisting that Mark join the group in the trip they were planning.

2.6. Conclusion: undesigned coincidences between Acts and Paul’s letters

Undesigned coincidences between Acts and Paul’s letters provide further evidence of Acts’ historical reliability as well as the position that Acts was authored by Luke, a traveling companion of Paul. Other than the undesigned coincidences presented in this section, Lydia McGrew documents fifteen more undesigned coincidences between Acts and Paul’s letters in her work. These undesigned coincidences, taken all together, form a potent cumulative case for the reliability of Acts.


  1. Lydia McGrew. (2020, August 3). “Timothy McGrew: Undesigned Coincidences in Scripture”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MHzNkQxKvU&list=PLe1tMOs8ARn08J6XcziBKENY6GDdIP7LI&index=1
  2. Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, pg. 187 
  3. Ibid, pg. 183
  4. McGrew, Hidden in Plain View, pg. 98
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, pg. 45
  7. McDowell, S. (2017). UNIQUE EVIDENCE FOR THE NEW TESTAMENT: INTERVIEW WITH LYDIA MCGREW ABOUT “UNINTENDED COINCIDENCES. Retrieved from: https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/unique-evidence-for-the-new-testament-interview-with-lydia-mcgrew-about-unintended-coincidences-1
  8. McGrew, Hidden in Plain View, pg. 68
  9. McGrew, L. (2020). More on ur-source theories vs. undesigned coincidences. Retrieved from: https://lydiaswebpage.blogspot.com/2020/08/more-on-ur-source-theories-vs.html
  10. McGrew, Hidden in Plain View, pg. 30
  11. Paley, Horae Paulinae, pgs. 71-73
  12. McGrew, Hidden in Plain View, pg. 168

Debunking 10 Common Objections to God and Christianity

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody god and religion (“Pastafarianism”) in skeptical circles

Skeptics hurl several objections to God and Christianity. You read and hear of them in social gatherings, on college campuses, on social media and the Internet, and in popular culture (Netflix, Hollywood, comedians, etc.). Skeptics who launch these, however, are not aware that there are good answers to these objections. Christianity has a rich intellectual tradition spanning 2,000 years. Its thinkers have and continue to ponder many questions (philosophical, theological, biblical, etc.). They also have and continue to provide answers to objections from non-Christian critics — from pagans in antiquity like Celsus, to atheists in our modern age like the late Christopher Hitchens.

As a Christian who has a lot more to learn, but is nevertheless informed in his tradition, I will respond to ten common objections to God and Christianity in this article, and show why these objections miss the mark. I will first lay out the skeptical objection, then proceed to debunk it with a rebuttal.

1. “Religion is the opium of the people, a ‘crutch’ for those who need hope or help in life.

We can respond to this objection in three ways. First, I will discuss why Christianity does not securely fit the bill of an “opium”. Second, I will clarify that this skeptical remark has no bearing on the truth of any religion. Third, I will point out that this remark can be turned around against atheists.

Responding to this skeptical remark will entail a discussion that could “press the wrong buttons” for some readers but that is not my desire. I hope we can all talk about sensitive topics and ponder uncomfortable questions for the sake of truth, and good and open discussion.

1.1. Christianity does not comfortably fit the bill of an “opium”

Yes, there are pleasing psychological aspects to religious belief, such as, in the case of Christianity, believing that one is immensely loved by God, that one is sustained by God’s grace in one’s life and guided in His providence, and that one will enter into God’s full presence in Heaven (i.e. the beatific vision) if one chooses God over sin in this life. However, not all aspects of Christian belief are pleasing and these aspects go against the idea of Christianity being an “opium”. Belief in the existence of hell for those who choose sin over God in this life is terrifying. Likewise, the notion that man is subject to a transcendent authority is unpleasant for many individuals who wish “to call their soul their own” and “live as they please”. Finally, Christianity’s high ethical demands (humility, chastity, temperance, etc.) are difficult and inconvenient. In fact, the early Church employed athletic metaphors (Heb 12:1, 1 Cor 9:25-27, Gal 5:7, Phil 2:16; 2 Tim 4:7) to describe themselves as Christians (“athletes”) and to describe the Christian life (“a race”). The celebrated 20th century writer, G.K. Chesterton, observed that many of his fellow British did not embrace the Christian life because they saw it as difficult, commenting:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.[1]

Christianity is not an easy and convenient religion. It is because of Christianity’s unpleasant aspects that numerous former atheists have noted in their conversion stories that they were “reluctant converts” (e.g. C.S. Lewis, Guillaume Bignon, Marc Lozano, etc.).[2] They wanted atheism to be true but looking into the the evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Christian religion compelled them to belief in Christian theism. C.S. Lewis, for example, an Oxford academic and writer, describes the climax of his conversion from atheism to Christianity:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?[3]

Christianity does not solidly fit the bill of being an “opium” because there are aspects of the Christian faith that are unpleasant and inconvenient. In fact, there are many people out there who prefer Christianity to be false.

1.2. The remark has no bearing on the truth of any religion

It important to note that the remark “religion is the opium of the people” does nothing to refute the truth claims of any religion. Pleasing psychological benefits derived from a belief system have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of a belief system. Christianity can be true and at the same time, be an effective coping mechanism for people who need hope or help in life. Likewise, Christianity can be false and be a great coping mechanism for people in need.

Further commenting, as a Christian, I believe the first option is true — Christianity is true and it is an effective coping mechanism for people in life. Speaking as a Christian who believes that Jesus is Lord and that the Bible is the inspired word of God, Christianity is not only an effective coping mechanism by human intention, it is an effective coping mechanism according to theological truth (the historical testimony of Jesus of Nazareth as God in the flesh) and by divine will (i.e. God sustaining us with His grace and guiding us in His providence). Jesus invites us to find comfort in Him (Matt 11:28-30) and assured His listeners to be at peace for God is with them (Matt 6:25-34; Jhn 14:27). As Christians, we should seek comfort in God, who entered into human history and told us to be at peace — for we are loved and cared for by Him.

1.3. The remark can be turned around against atheists

Finally, I want to point out that the remark in question can be easily turned around against atheists.

A theist could say that atheism is an opium for many atheists – a “happy pill” that provides pleasure, convenience, and peace.

Why pleasure and convenience? Under an atheistic worldview, people can “live as they please” and engage in sins that they are attached to (e.g. sexual sins). They would be free from any transcendent authority. Christianity being true is an uncomfortable thought for many atheists because it would compel them, through their conscience and intellect, to conform their personhood and life to the tenets of the Christian faith. A religion like Christianity, if true, entails a lot of change, and change is uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Why peace? An atheist can find comfort in the idea that they will not be judged for the way they lived their life after death – and that after death, there is just nothingness. 

Frankly speaking, many atheists today do not just not believe in God, they also do not want God to exist. They have a psychological preference or bias for atheism and want it to be true. Some atheists have even admitted this psychological preference openly.

Thomas Nagel, a prominent atheist philosopher, remarks:

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.[4]

Likewise, Aldous Huxley, an atheist writer and philosopher, notes:

The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none … For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning – the Christian meaning, they insisted – of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.[5]

The remark can be turned around against atheists as well — for many atheists have a psychological preference for atheism. However, I also want to bring up the point that many atheists have a preference for atheism because I believe many atheists (to those it applies to) have not confronted this truth about the psychology of their beliefs, and more importantly, they do not realize the negative effect their bias for atheism may have in their pursuit of truth. Wanting God to not exist can be a hindrance to a proactive, honest, open-minded, fair, and vigorous examination of the evidence for God and Christianity.

Ultimately, whether Christian or non-Christian, it is great for all of us to be aware of our biases or preferences so that we can better pursue the truth, especially when it comes to the most important question of all – the question of God’s existence and if He has revealed Himself in any particular religion.

2. “If God created and sustains the universe, then what created and sustains God?”

Nothing did and nothing does. What caused the uncaused first cause? Who moved the prime mover? What sustains the non-contingent ground of contingent reality? Do you see how these sentences do not make sense? These sentences are actually contradictions, making them logically meaningless. God, as the uncaused first cause, as prime mover, and as the non-contingent ground of contingent reality is not caused, not moved, and not sustained by anything else. 

Thinkers of the classical theist tradition (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, etc.) deduced that in order for contingent reality to exist, it must casually terminate in an uncaused first cause, and this is what we refer to as God. If something derived its existence from anything else, it could not be what classical theists refer to as God. 

While discussing this skeptical objection, I also want to clarify another point. Excluding the Kalam Cosmological argument, the classical arguments for God’s existence do not depend on the universe having a beginning. Plato and Aristotle believed the universe was eternal. Although Aquinas believed that the universe had a beginning due to scripture, he did not believe that the claim that the universe had a beginning could be established through philosophical argument. The classical arguments for God’s existence (excluding the Kalam Cosmological argument) work if the universe had a beginning or if it always existed. As Thomist philosopher Edward Feser states:

Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed.  Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument.  When he argues that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past.  What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.[6]

3. “Anyone who rejects Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, and the other pagan gods — as Jews, Christians, and Muslims no less than atheists do — should, to be consistent, go one god further and reject also the God of Western monotheism”.

This statement reveals ignorance about what Christians mean by “God”. When we Christians say God we do not think “one being among many”, “contingent”, or “within the world”.

The historic Christian view of God (i.e. the classical theist view of God) is that God is not “a being”, He is being itself (Exo 3:13-14) or Aquinas put it, ipsum esse subsistens – “the sheer act of to be itself”.[7] Philosopher Edward Feser notes the error in equating the God of classical theism to gods like Zeus and Thor (or other beings that atheists compare God to like Santa Klaus, the Easter Bunny, a Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.):

Proponents of the “ one god further” objection implicitly suppose that that it is a question of whether there exist one or more instances of an unusual class of entities called “gods”, understood as  “supernatural beings” comparable to werewolves, ghosts, and Santa Claus. And they think of the God of classical theism as merely one of these gods or beings alongside the others such as Zeus, Venus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, and so forth … The God of classical theism is not a member of any species or genus — including the species or genus “gods” — because if he were, he would be composed of parts (such as genus and specific difference), and he is instead absolutely simple or noncomposite. He does not share an essence with other members of the same class called “gods”, because if he did, then there would be a distinction in him between his essence and his existence, and in fact he just is existence itself … Each of these various gods is “a being” alongside other beings, whereas the God of classical theism is not “a being” — that is to say, something which merely has being and derives being from some source — but is rather underived or subsistent being itself, that from which anything else that exists or could exist derives its being.[8]

God is also non-contingent. As Feser just mentioned, God does not derive His existence from anything. He simply is. On the other hand, pagan gods such as Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, etc. are contingent. They all have stories of their own creation called “theogeny”, something else is responsible for their existence. Zeus is the child of Cronus and Rhea; Thor is the child of Odin and Jord; Quetzalcoatl was born by a virgin named Chimalman, etc. Even if other beings do not have origin stories such as Santa Klaus and the Easter Bunny, they are still contingent, for they do not carry within themselves the reason for their existence. Santa Klaus and the Easter Bunny exist because they are comprised of matter such as organs, which are comprised of cells, which are comprised of organic molecules, which are comprised of subatomic molecules, and so on. If you take these away, Santa Klaus and the Easter Bunny would evanesce.

Furthermore, the God of classical theism transcends creation. In contrast, the pagan gods of Greco-Roman antiquity are beings within the world. Zeus resides on Mt. Olympus, and Thor, in Asgard. Quetzalcoatl lives in one of the levels of heaven in Aztec cosmology. Santa Klaus and the Easter Bunny, if they existed, are denizens of the natural world. Santa Klaus lives in the North Pole and delivers gifts to homes around the world while the Easter Bunny lays, decorates, and hides eggs in nature.

When atheists compare the God of classical theism to gods such as Zeus and Thor (or to other beings such as Santa Klaus, the Easter Bunny, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster), then he is committing a category mistake. If an atheist rejects the existence of gods that are contingent beings within the world then so do I. As a Christian and adherent of the classical theist tradition, that is not what I mean by God. 

Another flaw in the “one god further” objection is that it falsely implies that the evidence supporting the existence of God and the evidence supporting the existence of gods (Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, etc.) are the same, which, in the view of skeptics who make this objection, is no evidence. This is false. Philosophical theists throughout history have put forward an array of arguments for the existence of God. See, for example, Craig and Moreland’s The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology and Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Another important point is that classical theists have deduced that God, as prime mover, must possess certain attributes (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, immateriality, oneness, simplicity, will, perfect goodness, and necessary existence). St. Thomas Aquinas devotes over a hundred double-column pages in His Summa Theologica in support of various divine attributes.[9] Much of Samuel Clarke’s book, “A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God”, is, as the title shows, devoted to arguing for certain divine attributes. Other philosophers of the classical theist tradition such as Aristotle, Plotinus, Leibniz, etc. also put forward arguments for divine attributes in their works.[10] 

How many philosophical arguments are presented in favor of a conception of god like Zeus or Thor? None. How many philosophical arguments are put forward for the existence of the God of classical theism? A lot! In fact, the God of classical theism is supported by a rich philosophical tradition. For this reason, the God of classical theism is also referred to as the “God of the philosophers”.

How many philosophers today believe in the existence of “gods” such as Zeus or Thor? None. How many philosophers today believe in the God of classical theism? A lot. In modern times, many atheist and agnostic philosophers have converted and have become classical theists on the basis of philosophical arguments. See, for example, Jacques Maritan, Edith Stein, Peter Geach, G.E.M. Anscombe, Mortimer Adler, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Finnis, Edward Feser, J. Budziszewski, etc.

Another notable example of a convert from atheism to classical theism is Anthony Flew. Flew was one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of the 20th century. Over time, however, Flew became convinced by the arguments of natural theology (i.e. what we can know about God through reason alone) – becoming a classical theist. In his book, “There Is a God”, Flew notes that he shares the same view of God as philosopher David Conway:

As for my new position on the classical philosophical debates about God, in this area I was persuaded above all by the philosopher David Conway’s argument for God’s existence in his book The Recovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia. Conway is a distinguished British philosopher at Middlesex University who is equally at home with classical and modern philosophy. 

The God whose existence is defended by Conway and myself is the God of Aristotle. Conway writes:

“In sum, to the Being whom he considered to be the explanation of the world and its broad form, Aristotle ascribed the following attributes: immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or indivisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence. There is an impressive correspondence between this set of attributes and those traditionally ascribed to God within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is one that fully justifies us in viewing Aristotle as having had the same Divine Being in mind as the cause of the world that is the object of worship of these two religions.”

Conway believes, and I concur, that it is possible to learn of the existence and nature of this Aristotelian God by the exercise of unaided human reason.

Also worth noting is that Flew would spend the remaining years of his life studying Christianity, not only because its conception of God is consistent with the God of classical theism, but also because Flew found the historical evidence supporting Christianity remarkable, and Christianity’s main personalities (Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus) impressive. Regarding the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection as laid out by Christian New Testament scholars, Flew remarks:

The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.[12]

Commenting on the Christian religion, Flew notes:

As I have said more than once, no other religion enjoys anything like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. If you’re wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to me that this is the one to beat![13]

Ultimately, the “one god further” objection fails because it misunderstands what Christians mean by “God” and falsely implies that the evidence supporting the God of classical theism and the evidence supporting gods such as Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, etc. are the same.

4. “Religion was invented to explain what we did not understand about the natural world. In modernity, we now know that natural phenomena that were once attributed to gods are now explained by science. As science advances, religion retreats.”

We can respond to this objection in two parts.

First, I will address the objection that “Religion was invented to explain what we did not understand about the natural world” and that “in modernity, we now know that natural phenomena that were once attributed to the gods are now explained by science”.

These statements certainly apply to many religions such as the pantheon of gods of Greco-Roman antiquity (e.g. thunder to Zeus, earthquakes to Poseidon, certain weather conditions to the Anemoi, etc.) and to past and present animist religions, which affirm that divine forces organize and animate the natural world. This objection, however, does not apply to all religions. Christianity, for example, started because Jesus’ disciples discovered his tomb empty (Lk 24:9-12) and soon after, they had experiences, as individuals and in groups (1 Cor 15:3-8), that convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. The origins of Christian belief in Jesus as Lord and Messiah are not related to phenomena in nature that were not understood in antiquity.

Another point to note is that Christian theology positively contributed to the emergence of modern science. Christian theology viewed God as transcending creation and as having created a rational and orderly universe. Christian theology guided scholars in the Middle Ages to break free from the predominant pantheist-animist view of nature of antiquity, carry out the “depersonalization of nature” (i.e. viewing nature as not divine), and come to the conclusion that nature operates under universal natural laws.[14] With this view of nature, Medieval scholars were committed to developing explanations based on natural causation for phenomena in the universe. This was a critical step towards the emergence of modern science in 16th-century Europe. Looking at history, skeptics may point to the Greco-Roman pagan tradition and say that it viewed unexplained natural phenomena like storms and earthquakes as created by gods, but they may not say the same about the Christian tradition.

Second, I will now respond to the claim that “As science advances, religion retreats”. Science cannot examine the God of classical theism because science is limited to the study of the natural world, while the God of classical theism transcends the natural world.

The pagan gods of antiquity (e.g. Zeus, Poseidon, the Anemoi, etc.) and science compete “on the same field” – the natural world. As a result, the advance of science can tell us that there is zero evidence for superhuman beings like Zeus and Poseidon in the earth’s atmosphere and in the sea, and that natural phenomena that were once attributed to both gods (e.g. thunder for Zeus and earthquakes for Poseidon) are now understood to be the result of earth’s natural processes. In contrast, the God of classical theism and science do not compete on the same field, for the God of classical theism is not an item within the natural world that science studies. Science does not have the tools to study the prime mover that transcends contingent reality. Therefore, the advance of science does not cause the retreat of authentic religion, for the object of both fields (i.e. the natural world and God), once again, do not compete on the same field. Bishop Robert Barron draws an analogy between science and God and the study of the Harry Potter books and J.K. Rowling:

God is not a thing or an item or an event or a relationship within the empirically verifiable universe. Rather, God is the reason why there should be a universe at all … Think of this long sprawling story [like the Harry Potter series] with all these hundreds and hundreds of characters and plots and subsplots and things going on, and Hogwarts academy, and the whole world. Well, I could name all the characters and I could analyze all the characters and all the events. Who will I never find in this story? J.K. Rowling. She is not a character in the story. Rather, she is the reason why there is that world at all … Therefore science, go all the way, advance all you want because it is not in competition with God and the things of God.[15]

Science is also incapable of rebutting philosophical arguments for the necessity of a prime mover, for that is the realm of philosophy, in particular, metaphysics. This is the reason why a good number of classical theists are not fond of the Kalam Cosmological argument, because the Kalam is an argument that is dependent on scientific evidence that points to the universe having a beginning. As a result, and in contrast to the other classical arguments for God’s existence, the Kalam’s strength as an argument may be negatively affected by future scientific developments. As Feser remarks on philosopher William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument:

Another reservation I have is that the [Kalam] argument, at least as Craig presents it, in my view puts way too much emphasis on results in modern scientific cosmology. As I have argued many times, the chief arguments for God’s existence rest not on empirical science but rather on deeper principles of metaphysics and philosophy of nature which cannot be overturned by – and indeed must be presupposed by – any possible empirical science.[16] 

(Note: In my view, the Kalam Cosmological argument succeeds and I do not mind its dependence on science because the scientific evidence supporting it is strong (the Big Bang theory and the Borde–Guth–Vilenkin theorem). The Kalam is actually my favorite argument for God’s existence because it is compelling and simple. It is not technical and you do not need to be a philosopher to grasp the argument well. Feel free to check out Dr. Craig’s video on the Kalam Cosmological argument and Faithful Philosophy’s article on the finite age of the universe.)

5. “Funny that you think that your religion is true. If you grew up in India, you would probably be a Hindu arguing for Hinduism. If you grew up in the Middle East, you would probably be a Muslim arguing for Islam.”

Unless you are talking about geography, geography has nothing to do with truth. If you lived in Rome in the first century AD, you probably would have believed that there was nothing morally wrong with infant exposure.[17] If you lived in China in the 16th century, you probably would have believed that divine forces organize and animate the natural world.[18] If you live in North Korea today, you would probably believe that Kim Jong II invented the hamburger (it is an official state belief — seriously!).[19]

Predominant beliefs in a culture whether political, scientific, historical, philosophical, religious, etc. can be true or false, so we have to discern the truth about reality by following the evidence wherever it leads and assessing rational arguments, if any, in support of different positions. 

This brings us to our second point, which further rebuts the argument that “religious belief is only the result of cultural transmission” – many non-Christians have converted to Christianity on the basis of evidence. Many atheist and agnostic intellectuals, for example, converted to Christianity after being persuaded by philosophical arguments for the existence of God and historical arguments supporting the Christian faith. These former atheists and agnostics include men and women such as Jacques Maritain, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Edith Stein, Peter Geach, G.E.M. Anscombe, Malcolm Muggeridge, Mortimer Adler, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Finnis, Alister McGrath, Edward Feser, J. Budziszewski, Abigale Favale, etc.

Taking one person from this list as an example, Edward Feser was a convinced atheist philosopher for many years. He read the works of numerous skeptical philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, J.L. Mackie, J.L. Schellenberg, Kai Nielsen, etc., and was firmly persuaded by their arguments. Feser’s reading in the philosophy of mind and language (John Searle and Gottlob Frege), however, made him lose his belief in materialism, which was a key component of his atheism. Furthermore, delving deeper into the classical theist tradition made Feser realize that theism was “much more philosophically sophisticated and worked out” than he had supposed.[20] In time, Feser ended up being convinced by theistic arguments for God’s existence — becoming a classical theist.

Now a classical theist, Feser began to look into whether God did reveal Himself in any particular religion. Based on the classical theist conception of God and his belief in the immateriality of the human intellect, Feser was able to rule out most religions. As Feser notes:

Now, since I eventually became convinced by the theistic arguments of philosophers like Aquinas and Leibniz, that ruled out certain religions right away. God, the arguments showed, is utterly distinct from the world, and there is in him something analogous to what we call intellect and will in us. I concluded that pantheistic religions, like Hinduism in most of its forms, are therefore mistaken at a fundamental level. So too are religions that conceive of the ultimate principle of reality in impersonal terms, as Confucianism and Taoism do. Buddhism is even more deeply mistaken insofar as it denies that there is any permanent divine reality underlying the world of appearances. So, while I respected the great thinkers of the Eastern religions, I decided that these religions were too deeply in error with respect to the nature of God to be acceptable.

A second problem with the Eastern religions was what they had to say about the nature of man. For another thing that I had become convinced of, you’ll recall, is the immateriality of the human intellect. The core of the individual human being, I had concluded, is an incorporeal self that stands apart from the entire material world in which we are embedded. And since this self is rational, it is like God in a way that nothing else in the material world is. I also eventually became convinced by the traditional philosophical arguments to the effect that this self’s incorporeal nature made it incorruptible. All of this makes human beings unique in nature; yet this uniqueness did not seem to me to be recognized in the Eastern religions. Even those having a doctrine of reincarnation, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, held that the individual person ultimately disappears, like a water droplet absorbed back into the ocean. There is no abiding self at all in Buddhism; and though there is an abiding self in Hinduism, what strictly abides is the deep core of the self that is taken to be identical to God, and not anything that is distinctive of this or that particular man or woman. For pantheistic Hinduism, everything is ultimately Godlike, because everything is ultimately God. There’s nothing special about human beings.

So, if any of the world religions is true, I judged, it had to be one that recognized that God was a creator utterly distinct from the world he creates, and that human beings do have a special destiny within that creation. Hence, I concluded that it is the view of God and the soul that one finds in the Abrahamic religions that was most in accord with what we could know through philosophical arguments. But were any of these religions true?

In time, Feser ended up becoming convinced of the truth of the Christian religion – converting in 2001. In his view, Christianity’s answer to the point of human existence is very plausible (reading the early Church fathers and the thesis of salvation as theosis in light of the biblical narrative).[22] He also found the logic grounding Christian doctrine, as well as its systematic structure, impressive. Finally, Feser found the historical evidence for the resurrection compelling as presented in the work of the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. 

In the end, intellectual religious conversions firmly rebut the objection that religious belief is only the result of cultural transmission. People learn new information and this has the potential to change their beliefs and attitudes towards anything, including the existence of God and the truth of any particular religion. 

6. “The Bible goes against science. I do not believe that the world and all life in it, including humans, were created over a period of seven days. I also believe in evolution.”

First off, the type of Christianity being referred to here is called “fundamentalist Protestantism”. These Christians believe that the Bible has to be interpreted literally. It is important to note, however, that biblical literalism is a modern development and that Christians historically did not interpret the Bible this way. As atheist history writer Tim O’Neill notes (see also O’Neill’s article on biblical literalism):

In fact, the idea of Biblical literalism is a very modern notion – one that arose in the USA in the Nineteenth Century and is exclusively a fundamentalist Protestant idea.[23]

The historic Christian view is that any given Bible verse or passage could be interpreted via no less than four levels of exegesis — the literal, the allegorical/symbolic, the moral, and the eschatological. As O’Neill notes:

Of these, the literal meaning was generally regarded as the least important. This also meant that a verse of scripture could be interpreted via one or more of these levels and it could potentially have no literal meaning at all and be purely metaphorical or symbolic. Therefore the Church had no problem with learning that a passage which had been interpreted literally could no longer be read that way because we now have a better understanding of the world.[24] 

In contrast to modern biblical literalists, the early Church fathers interpreted Genesis in a variety of ways, and they recognized that it employs figurative language while at the same time affirming a primeval event in the history of man.[25] The early Church father, Origen (ca. 185 AD – 253 AD), for example, notes the following on Genesis:

Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars — the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it…No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it…It is very easy for anyone who pleases to gather out of holy Scripture what is recorded indeed as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having rea­sonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account…And many other instances similar to this will be found in the Gospels by anyone who will read them with atten­tion, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted his­torically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.[26]

St. Augustine (ca. 354 AD – 430 AD), the Church’s most influential theologian prior to Aquinas, affirmed the use of figurative language in Genesis. He also criticized Christians of this day who attempted to lecture people on the sciences because they thought the information was contained in scripture. As Augustine notes:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.[27]

One can even fast forward to today and look at Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on Genesis:

The Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such … One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time —from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and in thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became — in the Word — the power of creation.

The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the “project” of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities.[28]

As Orthodox theologian and scholar of religion David Bentley Hart comments on the historic Christian view of biblical interpretation:

The Ancient and Medieval Church has always acknowledged that the Bible ought to be read allegorically in many instances, according to the spiritual doctrines of the church, and that the principal truths of scripture are not confined to its literal level which often reflects only the minds of its human authors.[29]

So this brings us to the question, how should we interpret the Bible? Well, before answering that question, we must grasp what the Bible is. The Bible is a collection of books of different genres (e.g. wisdom, poetry, songs, Greco-Roman biographies, apocalyptic, etc.), written by various authors, who were situated in particular cultures at different periods in history. Now if Christianity is true and the Bible is an inspired text through which God communicates truth through human authors, and there is an objective connection between the Old and New Testaments since they narrate salvation history, then that adds another layer of richness and complexity to the biblical text. For these reasons, the Bible must be read in thoughtful and nuanced ways.

This is why biblical scholarship is important, it allows us to arrive at proper, nuanced, and rich interpretation of the text through critical reading — taking into account genre, the culture of the author, language used, etc. Theology is also important because it allows us to read the biblical text in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ and salvation history. As St. Augustine remarked:

In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.[30]

Speaking for my tradition, the Catholic Church gives freedom to its theologians and biblical scholars to propose interpretations of biblical verses and passages provided that they do not conflict with the dogmas of the faith. The Church sets the parameters of what Christians have to affirm regarding the biblical texts but within and other than these parameters, the Church gives its theologians and biblical scholars the freedom to put forward interpretations that they believe are plausible or fit the evidence best.

On the subject of Genesis and human origins, for example, the Church says that Catholics have to affirm that God created the universe ex nihilo, that God infused our first parents with rational souls, that our first parents fell from a state of grace due to original sin and that we are all descendants of them. Apart from these de fide teachings, the Church “permits wide discussion on the issue of origins”.[31]

Although there are fundamentalist Christians today who reject scientific positions such as evolution, this does not apply to all Christian denominations. The Catholic Church, for example, the largest and oldest Christian denomination, never rejected evolution in its history. The Catholic Church sees no conflict between the Christian faith and evolution and leaves it up to individual Catholics whether to believe in either creationism, evolution, or intelligent design (I personally am an evolutionist).[32] Many Protestant denominations do not see a conflict between Christianity and evolution as well.[33] (For a great book on Adam, Eve, and evolution see Joshua Swamidass’ The Genealogical Adam and Eve).

Having said that, I also want to debunk the idea that Christianity has been a hindrance to science historically because nothing could be further from the truth. Historians of science have long rejected the “conflict thesis”, which sees science and religion as historical enemies.[34] Historians of science now affirm that although science and religion have clashed a number of times in history (mainly due to fundamentalist Protestantism), religion’s relationship with science has been by and large highly positive.[35] In fact, Christianity played a critical positive role in the emergence of modern science in 16th-century Europe. I will provide a summary of Christianity’s contributions to science below but if you want to dive deeper into the subject, you are free to check out section “V. Science” in part two of my Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization series

To begin the summary, after the fall of Rome, the West stood as a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms. Learning and scholarship had reached a low ebb and the next several centuries would be characterized by invasions, fragmentation and chaos, with few brief periods of stability and centralized authority. The West was basically a third-world country, economically poor and uneducated. It was from this low point that the Christian Church gradually took the West under its wing and worked to re-establish the groundwork of civilization.

The Church would educate Europe through its monastic and cathedral schools, and out of the Church’s cathedral schools would emerge the modern university.[36] Institutions of higher learning existed prior to the Middle Ages but the university we are familiar with today with its degrees (i.e. graduate and post-graduate), courses of study, standardized curriculum, faculties, thesis and thesis defense, is a Medieval innovation and a legacy of the Christian Church. These institutions would become the main sites of scientific activity in the West. As historian of science Peter Harrison notes:

The medieval universities, which were the chief sites of scientific activity in the later middle ages, were founded and supported by the Catholic Church.[37]

Likewise, historian of science Michael Shank, comments:

Between 1150 and 1500 … Europeans had had access to scientific materials than any of their predecessors in earlier cultures, thanks largely to the emergence, rapid growth and naturalistic arts curricula of medieval universities … About 30 percent of the medieval university curriculum covered subjects and texts concerned with the natural world.[38]

Popes and Christian religious orders would go on to establish many universities. (Yes, Popes! See Sapienza University for example, the first pontifical university founded in 1303 AD). 

The Church sponsored the education of its clergy at universities and many priest-scientists would go on to make significant contributions that laid the groundwork for modern science.[39] Priests Roger Grosseteste and Roger Bacon laid the underlying scientific principles of observation and repeatable experimentation. A priest by the name of Jean Buridan discovered the concept of impetus, which was the first stepping stone to Newton’s first law of motion. To name one more example, Thomas Bradwadine, another priest, was one of the four groundbreaking Merton Calculators. This group of Oxford scholars was the first to truly apply mathematics to the study of physics! As Bradwadine commented:

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom.[40]

The Merton Calculators laid the foundations for the later key understanding of momentum by distinguishing kinematics from dynamics. In addition to this, they developed logarithmic functions and the Mean Speed Theorem.[41] 

Christian theology also contributed to the emergence of modern science. Christian theology guided Medieval scholars to break free from the predominant pantheist-animist view of nature of antiquity, carry out the “depersonalization of nature”, and come to the conclusion that nature operates under fixed laws. As historian of science Noah Efron notes:

Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods, and institutions of what in time became modern science … today almost all historians agree that Christianity (Catholicism as well as Protestanism) moved many early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically. Historians have also found that notions borrowed from Christian belief found their way into scientific discourse with glorious results; the very notion that nature is lawful … For all these reasons, one cannot recount the history of modern science without acknowledging the crucial importance of Christianity.[42]

The Church also has a particular interest in astronomy. It provided substantial financial resources and social support over the centuries to this area of scientific study, to the point that historian of science John Heilborn notes that:

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.[43]

In fact, at the turn of the 18th century, the four best observatories in the world were cathedrals that doubled up as astronomical observatories.[44] The calendar we use today, the Gregorian calendar, is an innovation of the Church. It was developed by Jesuit astronomer and mathematician Christoph Clavius and enacted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.[45]

The Jesuits contributed excellently to the sciences as well. By the 17th century, just one century after their founding, the Christian religious order had become “the leading scientific organization in Europe, publishing thousands of papers and spreading new discoveries around the world”.[46] Historian of science Jonathan Wright provides a snapshot of the Jesuit’s scientific achievements:

They had contributed to the development of pendulum clocks, pantographs, barometers, reflecting telescopes and microscopes, to scientific fields as various as magnetism, optics and electricity. They observed, in some cases before anyone else, the coloured bands on Jupiter’s surface, the Andromeda nebula and Saturn’s rings. They theorised about the circulation of the blood (independently of Harvey), the theoretical possibility of flight, the way the moon effected the tides, and the wave-like nature of light.  Star maps of the southern hemisphere, symbolic logic, flood-control measures on the Po and Adige rivers, introducing plus and minus signs into Italian mathematics — all were typical Jesuit achievements, and scientists as influential as Fermat, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton were not alone in counting Jesuits among their most prized correspondents.[47]

Furthermore, Christian clergy made scientific contributions based on their learnings of the natural world from foreign missionary efforts. Lawrence Principe, a historian of science, notes:

But on a broader scale, during the Scientific revolution, Catholic monks, friars, and priests in missions constituted a virtual worldwide web of correspondents and data collectors. Information on local geography, flora, fauna, mineralogy, and other subjects as well as a wealth of astronomical, meteorological and seismological observations flooded back into Europe from far-flung Catholic missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The data and specimens they sent back were channeled into natural-philosophical treatises and studies by Catholics and Protestants alike. This massive collection of new scientific information was carried out by Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and, perhaps most of all, Jesuits.[48]

Providing three more examples of impressive clergy-scientists, Marin Mersenne, a Christian priest, facilitated an exceptional amount of scientific information during the Scientific Revolution. He corresponded with over 140+ key thinkers throughout Europe (and as far away as Tunisia, Syria, and Turkey). For this reason, Mersenne has been called “the center of the world of science and mathematics during the first half of the 1600s”.[49] Modern genetics was founded by a monk growing peas in a monastic garden – Gregor Mendel. Finally, the Big Bang theory was formulated by a Christian priest, Fr. George Lemaitre.

Christianity has contributed greatly to science and this is recognized by contemporary historians. As historian of science Peter Harrison notes:

[W]e might regard this period, [the Middle Ages,] as one that saw Christianity set the agenda for the emergence of modern science.[50]

Historian of science Lawrence Principe comments:

[I]t is clear from the historical record that the Catholic Church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history.[51]

Historian of science James Hannam notes:

[Until the late 18th century,] the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research.[52]

Noah Efron, another historian of science, states that the Catholic Church was the leading patron of science for “a crucial millennium”.[53]

Today, the Church’s interest in and support of the sciences can be seen most prominently in its Pontifical Academy of the Sciences (PAS) – a scientific academy, with a first-rate roster, that aims to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences. The Church also has its own observatory, the Vatican Observatory, in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. Of course, the Church continues to educate people in the sciences worldwide through its schools, especially at the higher level. The Catholic Church’s 1,300+ universities offer degrees in various scientific fields (biology, chemistry, physics, M.D. programs, etc.) and scientific research is conducted and published at these institutions.[54]

Contrary to portrayals in Netflix and Hollywood, Christianity has been, by and large (excluding clashes from fundamentalist Protestantism), an excellent ally of the sciences. Historians have written many works debunking the conflict thesis and detailing Christianity’s critical contributions to science. These include works such as Edward Grant’s God and Reason in the Middle Ages (2001) Roland Number’s Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2010), James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2010), Derrick Peterson’s Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes: The Strange Tale of How the Conflict of Science and Christianity Was Written Into History (2021), and David Hutchings and James Ungureanu’s Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World (2021). Although the conflict thesis has been long rejected by historians, works rebutting it continue to be made. It can earnestly be described as “flogging a dead horse” at this point. Thomas Dixon, a historian of science and religion, observes:

[Ever] since John Hedley Brooke’s Science and religion: some historical perspectives (1991), a thriving industry has grown up among historians of science debunking the idea of an inevitable and timeless conflict between religion and science.[55]

For a free source online, I highly recommend checking out atheist history writer Tim O’Neill’s debunking of the conflict thesis and his rebuttal of historical myths regarding the Galileo affair.

7. “The Catholic Church is scandalously rich, it is disgusting. They are living in wealth.”

The Church has a lot of money, but the question is — where does this money go? Are priests typically living in luxury as a result of donations from the laity? 

Answering the first question (“where does this money go?”), I do not think people who launch this objection are aware of how much money is needed to sustain and expand the Church’s work. I will first talk about the affairs of the Vatican, whose financial assets are managed by the Pope.[56] Then I will talk about the activities of Catholic religious orders and dioceses worldwide. Catholic religious orders and dioceses are entirely de-centralized from the Vatican.[57] They are run by “Superior Generals” and bishops respectively.

The Vatican, like any independent state, has a lot going on that cannot be easily summarized, but we can start our discussion with the fact that the Vatican has sixteen dicasteries (e.g. dicastery of Evangelization, dicastery of Clergy, dicastery of Communications, etc). To give you an example of one of these, the dicastery of Communications is in charge of transmitting the message of the Pope in 40+ languages over TV, radio, social media, print, and photography. This dicastery employs 530+ people.[58] In addition to its dicasteries, the Vatican comprises the Secretariat of State (which is in charge of international relations and diplomatic missions), institutions of justice, institutions of finance, various other institutes (e.g. the Labour Office of the Apostolic See, the various Pontifical academies, the Vatican Apostolic Library, etc.), interdicasterial commissions, and commissions and committees. The point is, do not think the Vatican is just St. Peter’s Basilica, The Apostolic Palace, and St. Peter’s Square and Colonnade. It is much more than these. The Vatican is a city-state that requires substantial financial resources to run. In 2021, the Vatican even posted a deficit.[59]

Going beyond the Vatican, the Church’s religious orders run a large number of healthcare facilities (hospitals, clinics, orphanages, etc.) and schools (seminaries, primary and secondary schools, and universities) worldwide — and money is needed to maintain, develop, and establish more of these institutions. Moving on to Catholic dioceses, these need to be run and developed (e.g. utility costs for seminaries and churches, salaries of church employees, the building of new parish structures and new churches, etc.). For both religious orders and dioceses, funding is needed for various charitable activities and missionary efforts as well.

All of these require a lot of money. A sustainable financial flow is needed to maintain, improve, and expand the activities of the Church, as well as pay off any debts the Vatican, a religious order, or a diocese may have to financial institutions.[60]    

This brings us to the second question: are priests typically living in luxury? The answer is no. Priests do not have high salaries. In the Philippines, priests have an entry-level salary of P23,937 a month, and an average salary of P32,628 a month. This puts them in the lower middle-income bracket of the country (P19,928.94 to P38,597.88).[61] Priests have comfortable lives in terms of being fed well and living in good functional residences but priests typically do not enjoy the luxuries of those living in middle- to higher-end subdivisions (e.g. pools, occasional shopping sprees at malls, higher-end cars, eating in higher-end restaurants, annual or bi-annual trips abroad for recreational purposes, etc.).  

Furthermore, there are other aspects of a priest’s lifestyle that are not easy. Priests do not enjoy the level of privacy that the laity possess in their private residences, since priests typically live in communal residences with other clergy. Of course, priests cannot get married too! 

If you think priests typically live lives of luxury and privilege, you are free to enroll in a seminary right now. There is a reason why most Christians, even most devout Christians, do not become priests – it entails a lot of sacrifice. This is why there is a shortage of priests (priest-to-laity ratio) even in a highly Christian country like the Philippines — not a lot of people are willing to give up many of the world’s goods (material goods, family life, the enjoyment of travel, etc.).[62] If you want to enjoy the goods of a world, priesthood is not the way to go.

Look, I have no doubt that there are corrupt priests out there who misuse the Church’s money (there are good priests and there are bad priests) – particularly those in higher positions within the Church. When people are put in a position of power and have the means to access the pool of money of an organization, corruption happens – be it in government, in business, or in the Church. That is reality. The point, however, is that the average priest does not live a material life that the laity should envy. If you are middle to upper class, you are living a life more materially blessed than the average priest.

As for the many beautiful churches of the Church, including any gold and valuably adorned items like chalices or monstrances in them, these are not for the material benefit of the clergy in their personal lives, these are for the purpose of giving glory to God (wealth can be used to glorify God, see Matt 26:6–13), to signify and honor theological realities (e.g. the Real Presence — that Jesus is truly present body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist), and are for the benefit of the entire Christian faithful (beauty uplifts the soul and draws one to God, “Via Pulchritudinis”).

Moving on to the Church’s art, which you see if you go to the Vatican Museum in Rome, these are for everyone to appreciate. The Vatican, like other Western cultural institutions, is serving as a steward and caretaker of European history.[63] The Vatican charges a modest €17 for entry into its museum, which includes access to the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. (€17 is the same price as The Lourve in Paris and cheaper than the Natural History Museum in New York).[64] On the other hand, St. Peter’s Basilica is free to enter, meaning that the cost of upkeep and employees is largely paid for from a deficit.[65]

8. “Christianity is bad for society.”

There is a lot I want to say in response to this objection but to keep my response punchy but not too long, I will set aside Christianity’s contributions in the past (you are free to check out my four-part series, Christianity: Builder of Western Civilization, to learn more on this) and focus on Christianity’s contributions today. In addition to this, I will lay out the positive benefits of religion according to social science. 

Regarding Christianity’s contributions today, the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of education and healthcare in the world.[66] 

In the area of education, as of 2021, the Church operated globally 214,000+ primary and secondary schools, and 1,300+ universities.[67] Especially noteworthy is the Church’s major role in establishing universities across Africa. To give two examples, as of 2019, Nigeria has 23 public universities and 17 private universities.[68] Of the 17 private universities, the Church built them all. Nigeria has 61 private universities. Of the 61 private universities, 31 were built by the Church.[69] Joel Carpenter, a historian and director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, comments:

This trend is quite dynamic across the continent … sub-Saharan Africa is one of the “hot spots” in the growth of Christian higher education worldwide.[70]

Moving on to healthcare, as of 2010, it was estimated that the Catholic Church managed 26% of the world’s healthcare facilities.[71] In 2011, the Church ran 117,000+ healthcare facilities worldwide, including hospitals, clinics, orphanages, homes for the elderly, handicapped, and those with special needs, centers for the care of those with leprosy, etc.[72] Another notable point is that among the Church’s 5,500+ hospitals, an estimated 65% of them are located in developing countries.[73]

Adding to its contributions in education and healthcare, the Church may be the largest charitable organization in the world. We do not have statistics on the Church’s total charitable spending, but it is reasonable to conclude that the Church is the largest charitable organization today given that it is the largest Christian Church and engages in a wide scope of charitable activities. As journalist David Patton notes:

Caritas, the umbrella organisation for [a large number of] Catholic aid agencies, estimates that spending by its affiliates totals between £2 billion and £4 billion, making it one of the biggest aid agencies in the world. Even these numbers only tell half the tale. Caritas does not include development spending by a host of religious orders and other Catholic charities, while most of the 200,000 Catholic parishes around the world operate their own small-scale charitable projects which are never picked up in official figures. Establishing like-for-like comparisons is hard, but there can be little doubt that in pretty much every field of social action, from education to health to social care, the Church is the largest and most significant non-state organisation in the world.[74]

This is only the Catholic Church as well — Protestant Christianity also does excellent work. According to Forbes, in 2021, Protestant Christian charities in the United States comprised almost half (eleven out of twenty-five!) of the country’s top 25 charities – Salvation Army (#3), Habitat for Humanity International (#6), YMCA of the USA (#8), Compassion International (#10), Samaritan’s Purse (#17), World Vision (#18), Food for the Poor (#19), Mount Sinai Health Systems (#20), Lutheran Services in America (#21), MAP International (#23), and Campus Crusade for Christ (#25).[75]

Christianity is a leading source of social action in the world today. Its impact in the areas of education, healthcare, and charity is terrific.

According to social science, religion has many positive benefits as well. In the section below, I will not focus on individual studies but on meta-analyses and systematic reviews which put together multiple studies to find the overall general trend on an issue (a meta-analysis is “a study that takes in all studies published across a time period on a specific topic”).[76] Moreover, since these studies are conducted by and large in the West, Christianity is the focus of these studies many times.[77]

To start, we can discuss religion’s effect on crime and delinquent behavior. A 2001 meta-analysis (60 studies) showed that religion is a moderate deterrent of crime. As researchers Colin Baier and Bradley Wright note: 

We examined data from 60 studies and we found that religion had a statistically significant, moderately sized effect on crime of about r=-.12 … Our findings give confidence that religion does indeed have some deterrent effect.[78]

More recent studies have also confirmed religiosity’s inverse effect on crime and delinquent behavior. A 2010 systematic review showed that 90% of studies (244 of 270) find an inverse or beneficial relation between religion and some measure of crime or delinquency, 9% of studies (24 of 270) found no association or reported mixed findings, while only two studies (0.008%) found that religion was positively associated with a harmful outcome.[79] A 2015 meta-analysis of 62 studies found that religiosity was inversely correlated with alcohol use, illicit drug use, and non-drug delinquency (i.e. theft, robbery, assault, and murder).[80]

Moving on to religion and personal well-being, a large 2001 meta-analysis of 850 studies found that “religious involvement is generally associated with greater-wellbeing, less depression and anxiety, greater social support, and less substance abuse”.[81] A 2021 meta-analysis (34 studies) also found a “moderate positive correlation” between religiosity and resilience, which was defined as the “ability to recover from a difficult situation”.[82] 

Another benefit of religion is that it fosters prosocial behavior (e.g. helping, sharing, donating, etc.). An extensive 2006 study across 53 countries found that “frequent churchgoers are more active in volunteer work and a devout national context has an additional positive effect”.[83] A 2020 systematic review showed that religiosity is positively correlated with charitable giving to outgroups and secular organizations.[84] A 2015 meta-analysis (93 studies) also shows that religious priming is positively correlated with prosocial behavior.[85] Priming is when researchers divide subjects into a control group and an experimental group. In this study, the experimental group was primed with religious activity (e.g. prayer, worship music, a Bible study, etc.) while the control group was not primed. 

Furthermore, studies confirm religion’s benefits being linked to intrinsic religiosity but not extrinsic religiosity. Individuals with an orientation of intrinsic religiosity “want to hold to the core tenets of a religion … [they] make central their religion as the framework for their lives, and they try to consistently live the religion they believe”.[86] On the other hand, individuals with an orientation of extrinsic religiosity are “religious as a means to an end. One is religious to be a part of a community, for sociability reasons, a distraction, or because it is a family tradition, but one does not have to actually believe what the religion teaches”.[87]  

A 2009 paper that surveyed a wide variety of research found that intrinsic religiosity was associated with higher self-control and self-regulation while extrinsic religiosity was not.[88]  

A 1997 meta-analysis (14 studies) found that intrinsic religiosity positively correlates with mental health and altruism while extrinsic religiosity negatively correlates with mental health and altruism.[89] A 2003 meta-analysis (147 studies) found that intrinsic religiosity was negatively correlated to depressive symptoms but extrinsic religiosity was positively correlated to depressive symptoms.[90] A 2015 meta-analysis (9 studies) and a 2017 review of the literature (8 studies) both showed that intrinsic religiosity was negatively correlated with suicidal behavior.[91] 

A 2002 meta-analysis (12 studies) found that those with an intrinsic religious orientation positively correlated with three of the big personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) and did not correlate with the other two big personality traits (neuroticism and openness).[92] However, those identified as “mature” in their religion positively correlated with four of the five big personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness) and negatively correlated with neuroticism. Extrinsic religiosity, on the other hand, positively correlated with neuroticism and did not correlate with the other big personality traits.

In the end, social science firmly points to the conclusion that religion gives rise to numerous benefits. It deters crime and delinquent behavior, boosts mental health, and fosters personal development and prosocial behavior. Furthermore, the positive benefits of religion are tied to an intrinsic religious orientation rather than an extrinsic religious religion. In other words, religion’s benefits shine through when a person earnestly believes and practices his faith. This is well-evidenced by Christianity’s rich history of saints, Christian men and women of amazing virtue who lived lives of service to God and others (think St. Francis of Assisi, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Philip Neri, St. Therese of Liseux, Bl. Pier Giorgio Frasatti, etc.).  

With that said, I do recognize that religion has negative effects as well. Religious people can be inspired by their theology to act negatively towards others they view as engaging in sin. Christians, for example, can treat people with same-sex attraction poorly (insult, shun, look down on, etc.) due to their faith. However, it is important to note that these Christians, though inspired by their faith to act poorly in these cases, are actually not following Christianity’s teachings. Jesus taught the primacy of love. In fact, it is through love that Jesus said that others would come to know that they were his followers. As Jesus said in Jhn 13:34-35:

As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Jesus also befriended sinners (e.g. tax-collectors and prostitutes) and sought to lead them away from sin (Lk 5:31-32):

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.

In the parable of the Pharisee and tax-collector, Jesus communicates that God values humility and looks down on self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14).

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Treating people badly, such as those with same-sex attraction, is contrary to love, and therefore, contrary to the Christian faith. Shunning sinners is contrary to both love and the Christian mission of preaching the good news. Rather than shun sinners, Christians are called to love them and through earnest friendship, lead them away from sin and towards God. Christianity is at its core, about love, and to love means “to will the good of the beloved”, including and especially his or her soul. Finally, Christianity teaches that Christians ought to be humble rather than self-righteous and that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace (Rom 3:23-24).

The teachings of Jesus are morally excellent. Unfortunately, Christians do not always live up to them. The problem with Christians who treat people such as those with same-sex attraction poorly is that they are so focused on the sin (in this case, non-marital sexual activity — sexual attraction, by itself, is not a sin) that they completely forget Jesus’ teachings on the primacy of love and humility, as well as their Christian duty to preach the good news. The problem then is not Christianity’s teachings, it is the failure of Christians to live according to the teachings of Jesus — the failure of Christians to live according to the Christian ideal. When Christians largely succeed in living the Christian ideal, you get the saints – Christian men and women who cultivated virtue in their lives to a degree that amazes. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI names the lives of the saints, along with the beauty Christianity has produced (Christian religious art, medieval Gothic cathedrals, Gregorian chant, etc.) as the two most effective apologia for the faith. As Pope Benedict XVI remarks:

[T]he true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated … Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.[93]

In the end, it is difficult to deny that Christianity is an excellent net positive force for good in the world today. Christianity’s contributions in the areas of education, healthcare, and charity worldwide are terrific. Social science also shows that religiosity has many benefits – it deters crime and delinquent behavior, aids in mental health, and fosters personal development and prosocial behavior. The findings of social science regarding religion are further evidenced by Christianity’s rich tradition of saints — Christian men and women, in every generation, who have lived lives of remarkable virtue and service to God and others.

Tuloy Sa Don Bosco, a center for the poor run by the Salesian order in the Philippines. The Salesians provide free primary and secondary education to 900+ former street children and children from abusive family environments. They also provide free housing for the center’s 200+ resident students.
Kiria-ini Mission Hospital, a Christian mission hospital in Kenya run by the Consolata Sisters. It is one of the 497 Catholic mission hospitals in the country.
Missionaries of Charity sisters prepare lunch for the poor in the order’s soup kitchen in St. Louis, Missouri. The Missionaries of Charity conduct excellent work for the poor in 133 countries worldwide.
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901 – 1925) during one of his mountain climbs. Frassati was dubbed by Pope John Paul II as “the man of the eight beatitudes” and lived a life of outstanding service to the poor.

9. “I don’t see how the Christian religion can be true given the Church’s sexual abuse crisis”.

The Catholic Church does have a sexual abuse problem. Over the past many decades, there has been a plethora of sexual abuse cases. Even worse is the fact that many bishops around the world were complicit in covering up cases of abuse in their dioceses.

Before I address the core of this objection (“How can Christianity be true given the sexual abuse crisis?”), I need to raise four points in order to bring balance to the picture and correct wrong assumptions that could emerge in people’s minds due to the media’s frequent spotlighting of sexual abuse cases within the Church, as well as the common portrayals of priests as sex offenders in popular culture (Hollywood and Netflix).

First, it needs to be clarified that the Pope is not responsible for sexual abuse cover-ups around the world. The Church is a decentralized organization.[94] The Pope does not know what is happening in the diocese of Kalookan, Philippines, or the diocese of Syracuse, New York. The administrators of Catholic dioceses around the world are the appointed bishops of these dioceses. These are the individuals responsible for covering up sexual abuse in an area, should there be any. 

Second, it must be pointed out that the rate by which Catholic priests commit sexual abuse is no higher than the rate of sexual abuse of clergy of other religious groups and less than the rate of sexual abuse among the general population of men. This is what the data shows. As noted by Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University: 

Catholic clergy aren’t more likely to abuse children than other clergy or men in general. According to the best available data (which is pretty good mostly coming from a comprehensive report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 as well as several other studies), 4% of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century. No evidence has been published at this time that states that this number is higher than clergy from other religious traditions. The 4% figure is lower than school teachers (at 5%) during the same time frame and perhaps as much as half of the numbers of the general population of men.[95]

Likewise, Ernie Allen, current Founding Chairman and former president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, remarks:

We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others.[96]

Dr. Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, and author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press) states:

My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination —or indeed, than nonclergy …  (I cannot be called a Catholic apologist, since I am not even a Catholic).[97]

Michael Castleman, a San Francisco journalist who has spent decades delving into sex-related research, comments that only a very small portion of child sex abusers are priests. As Castleman notes in his Psychology Today article, Beyond Bad-Apple Priests: Who the Pedophiles Really Are:

From media reports, one might infer that Catholic priests commit most pedophilia. In fact, only a tiny fraction of child sex abusers are priests.

We know who the pedophiles are from the National Sexual Health Survey (NSHS), a large, comprehensive study of American sexuality based on in-depth interviews in 1996 with a representative sample of 8,400 Americans…

Ninety-five percent of the abusers were men.

Who were the molesters? NSHS categories included: strangers, dates, friends or acquaintances, parents, step-parents, other relatives, and others. Dates, friends, and acquaintances comprised the largest group of assailants (38 percent), followed by non-parent relatives (23 percent), others (15 percent), strangers (10 percent), parents (6 percent), and step-parents (4 percent).

Victims under 12 were typically abused by caregivers: parents, step-parents, other relatives, babysitters, or camp or recreational-program staff. Teens were generally abused by friends or acquaintances.

Under “other,” the NSHS asked: Who? Surprisingly, not one victim mentioned a priest. Most of the abusers in this category were teachers, neighbors, doctors, grandparents, a parent’s friend or coworker, or an adult around the house: a gardener, or repairman.

Not a single priest. I emphasize this not to exculpate pedophile priests, but rather to elucidate the reality of this crime … The problem of child sexual abuse is much larger than bad apples in the priesthood. As the NSHS clearly shows, we’re dealing with bad apples potentially anywhere.[98]

Yes, the Catholic Church has a sexual abuse problem but the rate of abuse within the Church is no higher than the rate of abuse by other religious clergy and is less than the rate of abuse of the general population of men. Sexual abuse is not a particularly serious problem (compared to the clergy of other religious groups or the general population of men) of the Catholic Church. It is a human problem.

This brings us to the third point — sexual abuse cover-ups occur in various institutions. According to a 2022 investigation by U.K.’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), a culture of sexual abuse cover-up exists in many of Britain’s schools.[99] The investigations found that headteachers and school staff dismiss allegations or do not take proper action when allegations arise because they do not want to damage the school’s reputation. A 2012 review by the Los Angeles Times revealed sexual abuse cover-up in the Boy Scouts of America. There were 500+ cases wherein the organization either did not notify the police or “went out of their way to conceal reports of abuse”.[100] In 2022, Netflix released a documentary on sexual abuse cover-up in the Boy Scouts entitled “Leave No Trace”. Hollywood also has a long history of sexual abuse and people in the industry protecting their own and “looking the other way”.[101] Alissa Wilkinson, a culture reporter at Vox, states:

There’s no political or religious or any other kind of boundary to communities that cover up for abusers and silence the accusers. It happens at Fox News. It happens in Hollywood and among communities of cinephiles. It happened among sports fans at Penn State. It happens on college campuses. It happens in Silicon Valley and in politics on the left and right. It happens in the Catholic Church, in missionary communities, in evangelical churches.[102]

Moving on to the fourth point, at least in the United States, cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church have been on a trend of decline since the 1980s and have especially declined into the 21st century, as a result of effective reforms by the American Church.[103] In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) instituted mandatory reporting guidelines, and Catholic dioceses enacted “safe environment policies” that prohibited adults from being alone with minors except in certain approved situations. David Gibson of the Washington Post notes the effectiveness of the Church’s reforms in his article, 10 years after Catholic sex abuse reforms, what’s changed?, saying: 

Whatever its past record, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has made unparalleled strides in educating their flock about child sexual abuse and ensuring that children are safe in Catholic environments.

Over the past 10 years, Catholic parishes have trained more than 2.1 million clergy, employees, and volunteers about how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse. More than 5.2 million children have also been taught to protect themselves, and churches have run criminal background checks on more than 2 million volunteers, employees, educators, clerics and seminarians. Allegations of new abuse cases continue to decline … and appear to reflect the effectiveness of some of the charter’s policies as well as ongoing efforts to increase screening of seminarians and to deal with suspected abusers before they claim multiple victims.[104]

Having raised these four points and brought balance and perspective to the reality of the Church’s sexual abuse problem, we can now turn to address the core of the objection – how can the Christian religion be true given the Church’s sexual abuse crisis?

The response to this objection is that the moral evils committed by religious people do not make their religion false. A religion can be true while having adherents who engage in moral evil (i.e. sin). In fact, moral evil by men, including Christians, is expected (but not approved) under a Christian worldview, because Christianity affirms that man has a fallen human nature due to original sin and that as a result, he is prone to sin and error. 

When we look at the scripture, we see that men of the Judeo-Christian tradition committed moral evil (even the Bible’s protagonists!) — many of these moral evils were especially grave as well. In the Old Testament, Cain murdered his brother Abel. Sampson slept with a prostitute and broke his Nazarite vow a number of times. King Saul worshipped pagan gods alongside YHWH, gravely violating the first commandment. King David lusted after a woman, had her husband killed, then married her. In the New Testament, Judas betrayed Jesus for money. Peter, Jesus’ leading disciple, denied Jesus thrice and was later called out by Paul for his moral shortcoming in Antioch (Gal 2:10-13). Even if Jesus respected and affirmed the religious office of the Pharisees, Jesus also pointed out their hypocrisy (Matt 23:1-3):

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

All of us are sinners. All Christians fall short of the Christian ideal. I certainly do not expect the Church’s record to be blameless because it is an institution comprised of fallible human beings. Anything involving men, be it ourselves, social institutions, or history, will always be black and white – a mix of good and evil. 

Regarding the moral failures of the Church’s priests (corruption, sexual sin, etc.), I also want to point out that this is why we are often told as Christians to pray for our priests. The devil will especially target God’s officers – His priests and pastors – because he knows that he could do the most damage to the body of Christ by leading these individuals into grave sin. By the nature of their vocation, priests and pastors have a “target on their back”. As it is in war, you target the enemy’s officers. 

Ultimately, this skeptical objection fails because moral evil committed by religious people does not make their religion false. In the same way, religious people doing moral good does not make their religion true. In the case of the Christian religion, its truth is dependent on the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then Christianity is true. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is false. As St. Paul succinctly put it in his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 15:14):

 [I]f Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

To ponder the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion will entail, at its core, examining Christianity’s origins — the historical evidence for the alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, which Jesus’ disciples proclaimed as reality shortly following his death.

10. “Religion does not matter. What matters is that you are a good person, and one does not need religion to be a good person.”

False, religion does matter – if it is true. The question one should ask, above all, is “Does God exist and did He reveal Himself in a particular religion?”. If yes, then it is right and just to give God honor. It is not only right and just to give God honor due to His excellence (perfect goodness is an attribute of the God of classical theism), but also because all contingent reality derives its being from Him.

In order to elaborate further on why it is just to give God honor, we need to talk about the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion. As Christian theologian Scott Hahn notes, justice is the virtue by which “we render to others what is their due”, while religion, as a virtue, involves “giving to God what He is due”.[105] For this reason, religion is “the highest form of justice”.[106] 

Religion is also a transcendent form of justice because it is a case wherein what is owed to another cannot be met. An example of a transcendent form of justice would be our parents.[107] We cannot give them back what they gave us because our parents gave us life, love, food, clothing, shelter, education, wisdom, and all of the nurture that comes from fathering and mothering. When it comes to our parents, justice calls for pietas, or as embodied in the ten commandments – “Honor your father and your mother”. Even more than our parents, God, as Creator and non-contingent ground of contingent reality, gives us everything – our lives, our family and friends, the food we eat, the air we breathe, the nature we enjoy, etc. 

Furthermore, if Christianity is true, then God’s goodness to us should make us feel extremely shy, like how we would feel about a good friend who has done too much good to us – more than we deserve. Under Christianity, God humbled Himself by taking on our lesser human form, suffered for us, and ultimately, died for us out of love. Through death on the cross, God paid the price for all our sins – liberating us from its bondage. In the present day, God continues to provide us the grace to do good (2 Cor 12:9), guide us in our temporal affairs, and bring good out of evil in our lives (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28). He is always eager, like the father of the Prodigal Son, to forgive us of our sins, no matter how many times and how gravely we offend Him – He just waits for us to return to Him. Moreover, God, at every moment, loves us infinitely. God is not only our Lord and Creator, He is also our greatest friend, ally, and lover. 

It is right and just that we honor our parents based on who they are (i.e. our parents) and the good that they give us. Infinitely more so, it is right and just to honor God based on who He is and the good that He gives us. As Christian priests say at the Holy Mass:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. In him you have been pleased to renew all things, giving us all a share in his fullness. For though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself and by the blood of his Cross brought peace to all creation.[108]

In addition to the virtue of religion leading man to give God due honor, the virtue also leads to man’s flourishing. For when man worships God, his mind is subjected to God, and it is in this subjection to God that man’s mind finds perfection.[109] When man orients himself towards God, he orients himself towards the Good and finds true freedom, which is not “the ability to do whatever I want” but the “capacity to do good” and liberation from sin.[110] Think about it, are you truly free when you are prideful, self-centered, vain, envious, lustful, etc.? As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2097, v. 14):

The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.

The virtue of religion, by perfecting man’s mind, also places man on the right path towards eternal salvation. As Pope John Paul II notes in his encyclical letter, Redemptor Hominis:

Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him because there is salvation in no one else but him.[111]

Ultimately, man not only reveres God because it is right and just, man also reveres God for his own sake — for it is only in God that man finds his fullness.

Having discussed why it is right and just for man to honor God, and why it is necessary for man to do so for his perfection, I also want to respond to the other aspect of the skeptical objection – i.e. “What is important is to be a good person”.

How do you know what is good? Is the moral good that you believe in subjective or objective?

Under an atheistic naturalist worldview, there is no reason or rhyme to existence, no purpose or meaning to life (except what you make of it), and no objective good or evil. So if atheistic naturalism is true, then you are free to live as you please because all human actions would have no objective moral value. Morality would be subjective. In this scenario, there is no objectively right way to live one’s life ethically, so one can live based on his subjective beliefs of what it means to be a good person.

If God does exist, however, then morality is objectively grounded in His nature as perfect goodness, and based on our created nature as human beings (i.e. natural law) who possess an intellect and a will.[112] If God does exist and if He did reveal Himself in a particular religion, then “being a good person” is not about living in accordance with our subjective beliefs of what it means to be a good person, it is about living in accordance with God’s objective moral law as revealed in sacred scripture (which is a product of divine revelation and providence).

Ultimately, this skeptical objection fails because religion does matter if it is true. If God does exist and if He did reveal Himself in the Christian religion, then we ought to give God honor and follow Christianity’s tenets, not only because it is right and just, and not only because Christianity’s tenets would be true and good in and of themselves, but also because it would lead to the perfection of our minds and put us on the direct path towards eternal salvation.[113] If Christianity is true, then “being a good person” is not about living up to our own subjective moral beliefs, it is about following Jesus in all matters for He alone is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jhn 14:6).

Furthermore, if Christianity is true, then we are not called to spiritual mediocrity (i.e. do not hurt people and be nice to them), we are called to become saints — to become like Christ, to be Christ-like. There is so much more to being good than not hurting people and being nice to them. Pride, selfishness, envy, lust, dishonesty, etc. can all be done while not hurting people and being nice to them. Yet, these are all moral evils that need to be done away with if we are to live morally good lives.


As we have seen, the skeptical objections raised in this article miss the mark. If you are a skeptic reading this, I earnestly encourage you to look deeper into Christianity, for there are good answers to questions you have. I once went through a period of searching myself and had a lot of questions. I looked into various belief systems (Christianity, atheism, and Islam especially) and in the end, I came out earnestly convinced of the truth of the Christian religion. I was convinced by the answers Christianity provided and the evidence grounding Christianity’s historical claims.

As a believer of Jesus Christ, I now do what I can to share the answers and riches of the Christian tradition, and help others in their search for the truth. For those who are interested in looking further into Christianity, I came up with a list of recommended YouTube content creators and books elsewhere in my blog. Feel free to check it out. Of course, you are free to message me if you have any questions about God or Christianity as well!


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  4. Nagel. The Last Word, pgs. 130-131
  5. Huxley, Ends and Means, pp. 312, 316
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  7. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 4, a. 2
  8. Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pgs. 289-290
  9. Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, pgs. 267-268
  10. Ibid.
  11. Flew, There is a God, pgs. 92-93
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  26. Origen, On First Principles (Book IV), Verse 16
  27. Augustine, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis Vol. 2
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  29. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, pg. 63
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  34. Harrison in Numbers and Kampourakis, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths About Science, pgs. 195-196
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  38. Shank in Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, pgs. 21, 26-27
  39. Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science.
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  43. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church, Cathedrals as Solar Observatories, pg. 3
  44. Ibid.
  45. Christopher Clavius. Retrieved from: https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Clavius/
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  48. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, pg. 104
  49. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, pg. 59
  50. Harrison in Harrison (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, pg. 6
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  52. Efron in Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, pg. 81
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  56. Breaking In The Habit. (2020, November 12). “Catholic Church: Sell Everything and Give to the Poor?”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rRjD3Hh12Pk
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid.
  59.  Tornielli, A. (2021). Fr Guerrero: “The Holy See reduces costs, not its mission”. Retrieved from: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2021-03/holy-see-budget-coronavirus-finances-pope-francis-economy.html
  60. Breaking In The Habit. (2020, November 12). “Catholic Church: Sell Everything and Give to the Poor?”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rRjD3Hh12Pk
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  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Wodon, Q. 2021. Global Catholic Education Report 2021: Education Pluralism, Learning Poverty, and the Right to Education. Washington, DC: Global Catholic Education, OIEC, IFCU, OMAEC, and UMEC-WUCT and Agnew, John (2010) ‘Deus Vult: The Geopolitics of the Catholic Church’, Geopolitics, 15: 1, 39 — 61
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  68. Carpenter, J. (2017) Christian Universities Grow in Africa”, International Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ihe/article/download/9692/8566/
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  70. Ibid.
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  73. Ibid.
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  77. Ibid.
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  93. Ratzinger, “The Feelings of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty: Message of His Eminence Card. Joseph Ratzinger to the Communion and Liberation (CL) Meeting at Rimini (24-30 August 2002).
  94. Breaking In The Habit. (2020, November 12). “Catholic Church: Sell Everything and Give to the Poor?”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rRjD3Hh12Pk
  95. Plante, T.  (2018). , Six Important Points You Don’t Hear about regarding Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/do-the-right-thing/201808/separating-facts-about-clergy-abuse-fiction
  96. Kaczor, The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church, pg. 89
  97. Kaczor, The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church, pgs. 88-89
  98. Castleman, M. (2010). Beyond Bad-Apple Priests: Who the Pedophiles Really Are. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/all-about-sex/201003/beyond-bad-apple-priests-who-the-pedophiles-really-are
  99.  Lynch, C. (2022). Schools have ‘cover-up’ culture and put reputation ahead of kids’s safety, report finds. Retrieved from: https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/schools-are-covering-up-cases-of-grooming-and-sex-abuse-by-staff-inquiry-finds/
  100. Christensen and Felch. (2012). Boy Scouts helped alleged molesters cover tracks, files show. Retrieved from: https://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-boy-scouts-files-20120916-story.html
  101. Wilkinson, A. (2017). The abuse problem within the film community extends beyond big names like Harvey Weinstein. Retrieved from: https://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-boy-scouts-files-20120916-story.html
  102. Ibid.
  103. Douthat, R. (2010). The Pattern of Priestly Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from: https://archive.nytimes.com/douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/the-pattern-of-priestly-sex-abuse/
  104. Gibson, D. (2012). 10 years after Catholic sex abuse reforms, what’s changed? Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/10-years-after-catholic-sex-abuse-reforms-whats-changed/2012/06/06/gJQAQMjOJV_story.html?utm_term=.19297e4e7a33
  105. Hahn and McGinely, It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion, loc. 460.
  106. Ibid.
  107. Pints With Aquinas. (2020, December 22). “Why Civilization is DOOMED Without True Religion W/ Dr. Scott Hahn”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/9dH7SgGCq24
  108. https://universalis.com/static/mass/orderofmass.htm
  109. Paez, A. The Virtue of Religion According to St. Thomas Aquinas. Retrieved from: https://graduate.christendom.edu/pdfs/papers/Paez%20Virtue%20of%20Religion.pdf
  110. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1731-1733 
  111. John Paul II. (1979). Redemptor Hominis. Retrieved from: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html
  112. Feser, E. (2012) Whose nature? Which law? Retrieved from: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2012/10/whose-nature-which-law.html
  113. Paez, A. The Virtue of Religion According to St. Thomas Aquinas. Retrieved from: https://graduate.christendom.edu/pdfs/papers/Paez%20Virtue%20of%20Religion.pdf


Christian Religious Experiences: An Evidence Sampler

The Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila by Bernini

A line of historical evidence for Christianity is Christian religious experiences. When it comes to these though, I am not focusing on vague, general, experiences like feelings of love, peace, euphoria, etc. I am talking about experiences that possess explicit Christian elements as well as extraordinary elements. These extraordinary elements in particular make a supernatural explanation for these experiences more likely than natural explanations. Especially striking about Christian religious experiences is that they not only occur to Christians but to non-Christians as well (e.g. atheists and agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc).

In this article, I will lay out a solid evidence sampler of Christian religious experiences, focusing on firsthand accounts in modern times from non-Christians. 

1. Visitations from the Angelic Doctor[1]

Stojan Adasevic (left) in his earlier years

Stojan Adasevic was an atheist abortion doctor in Serbia back when it was still a communist country. During his career of over 25 years, he had carried out thousands of abortions — but he did not believe he was doing anything wrong. As put by the Spanish newspaper, La Razon, which interviewed Adasevic:

The medical textbooks of the Communist regime said abortion was simply the removal of a blob of tissue. Ultrasounds allowing the fetus to be seen did not arrive until the 1980s, but they did not change his opinion.

Adasevic began to have recurring dreams each night of a beautiful field full of children and young people who were playing and laughing, but who ran away from him in fear. A man dressed in a black and white habit stared at him in silence. Every time Adasevic woke up from this dream, he would do so in cold sweat.

One night, Adasevic asked the man in his dream who he was. The man told Adasevic that he was Thomas Aquinas (at this point in his life, Adasevic did not even know who Aquinas was). Adasevic then asked Aquinas who these children were, and Aquinas told him that they were the ones he killed with his abortions. Adasevic woke up in shock and fear. He decided that he would refuse to perform any more abortions. 

Once Adasevic notified his hospital that he would no longer perform abortions, the reaction from the hospital, which was run by the state, was swift and severe. Physicians in communist Yugoslavia did not refuse to do their job. Adasevic’s salary was cut in half, they fired his daughter from her job, and his son was barred from enrolling into the state university. 

Adasevic’s family endured great hardships due to these punitive measures and he started to doubt his decision to not perform abortions. However, one night, he had another dream of St. Thomas, who assured him that he made the right decision as well as his friendship with Adasevic.

Today, Adasevic is a leader in Serbia’s pro-life movement. Now a Christian, he has a strong devotion to St. Thomas Aquinas and is frequently with Aquinas’ works as his reading material. 

Whenever Adasevic shares his story to others, he notes that in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Aquinas wrote that human life begins forty days after fertilization. Perhaps, Adasevic would opine, “the saint wanted to make amends for that error”. 

2. A Powerful Experience on the Road[2]

There are religious skeptics, and there are religious skeptics who disdain religion. Sy Garte was the latter. He was an atheist raised by very anti-theistic parents.

Garte is a very accomplished man in his line of work. As a biochemist, he was a professor at New York University and the University of Pittsburgh, and he currently teaches at Rutgers University. He has authored over two hundred scientific publications, three scientific monographs, and has served as a division director at the National Institute of Health.

Garte’s inquisitive nature led him to ask questions, which led him to rethink his atheism and in time, look into religion, and eventually, Christianity. He met Christians who were smart and scientifically-minded. He also checked out a church service for the first time and to his surprise, found it welcoming, and the content of the sermons, beneficial. These would lead Garte to look deeper into the Gospels and investigate Christianity’s claims, as he details in his book “The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith” (2019).

In time, Garte found himself at an impasse. Although he was no longer an atheist (i.e. God does not exist), he was not a Christian either – remaining in a state of agnosticism (i.e. God may or may not exist). Although Garte was open to Christianity and saw it to some degree, as evidentially compelling, Christianity was a whole new world that was foreign to him. He was afraid to step into it. Garte also had doubts of his own. God, however, would meet Garte halfway in his search for Him. 

One day, Garte was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the middle part of the state, with a long way to go before his destination. Turning the radio on, he heard a voice of a Christian preacher — the sort of people whom he “used to mock and avoid”. This preacher, however, was really good, and Garte listened for a few minutes before turning it off. Driving in silence for a while, he began to wonder what it would sound like if he were preaching. Garte, recounting what happened next, notes:

Driving in silence for a while, I began wondering how I would sound if I ever tried preaching—after all, I always liked to talk. I laughed a bit, thinking about what I could possibly say. The first thing that came to my mind was something about science—how, if there were a God, he might have used science to create the world.

And then something happened. I felt a chill up and down my spine and could hear myself speaking in my mind—preaching, in fact. I could see an audience in front of me, people in an outdoor stadium, dressed in summer clothing. I pulled the car over to the right lane and slowed down. It was not a vision exactly, but it was intense. I knew I wasn’t making the words up—I was listening just as much as the audience.

I talked about knowing that Jesus loves me. With a voice full of passionate emotion, I assured the crowd that whatever their sins might be, they were no worse than my own, and that because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross we could all be saved. I explained that God’s love is more powerful than any other kind and that anyone can have it without deserving it.

At some point during this experience, I had pulled over onto the shoulder of the road, where I sat behind the wheel crying for some time. I had never considered the things “I” had been saying. Some of the concepts were unfamiliar. The only explanation I could fathom was that the Holy Spirit had entered into my life in dramatic fashion.

On the side of the road in his car and in between sobs, Garte voiced his belief and gratitude out to God: “Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ”. 

After his conversion to Christianity, Garte would go on to become a member and active lay leader of the United Methodist Church in Rockville, Maryland.

3. “The Tears Just Stopped, Just Dried”[3]

Another case is that of Sally Read. Read was an atheist who “hated” Christianity. She is also accomplished in her line of work as an award-winning poet and writer.

Read’s conversion, like many others, was a journey. It began when she was writing a book that prompted her to ask existential questions, but instrumental to her conversion was an intelligent and pastoral priest by the name of Fr. Gregory Hrynkiw, whom Read often dialogued with. When asked about Fr. Hrynkiw’s instrumental role in her conversion, Read commented: 

[Fr. Hrynkiw and I] were the same age, so we were equal, on a level playing field. And he’s really bright — a really brilliant theologian — so whatever I threw at him he could always come back with the answer. That was very important and still is — he’s such a support to me, whatever I ask him, he can answer. But also because he didn’t try to convert me. He said “only Christ can convert you” and he let Christ do all the work in that sense. But he was very steady and never deserted me. He always answered my emails, and was always ready to talk with me.

Eventually, with her stumbling blocks towards Christianity crumbling, and family problems bringing her to a low point, Read drove to a church in Via del Carmelo. Looking at an icon of Christ’s face and speaking honestly and instinctively, with no belief or unbelief, she uttered: “If you’re there, you have to help me”. Describing what happened next, Read attests:

There was this incredible experience where this presence almost came down, and my tears just stopped, just dried. I felt almost physically carried up … [it was] utterly tangible.

Read, describing her initial state of confusion and vulnerability prior to her prayer, the presence that came over her, and the affect of this experience on her being, notes:

It was like being in the grip of panicked amnesia, when suddenly someone familiar walked into the room and gave myself back to me—a self restored to me more fully than before. It was a presence entirely fixed on me as I was on it, and it both descended toward me and pulled me up. I knew it was Him.

Read converted to Christianity. She details her journey from atheism to Christianity in her book “Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story” (2016).

4. “You’re Going to Have to Do It Yourself”[4]

Craig Keener is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars today. He has developed a reputation as a thorough and meticulous researcher and has written several notable works in his field. These include leading commentaries on Acts and John, a magisterial two-volume work on miracles, and a major monograph on the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies.

Keener was not always a Christian. He grew up in a non-religious household and identified as an atheist at a young age of nine. Keener recalls telling his mom that he did not believe in life after death, a view that his mother shared with him.

A notable point came when Keener was thirteen and he started to read Plato. Plato got Keener thinking about the purpose and meaning of life, and Keener related these to his atheistic worldview. This also made Keener ponder the question of God’s existence, to the point that he would say, even as an atheist – “God, if you’re out there. Or a god, or whatever, if you are out there, please show me.” – but Keener did not know if saying this would result in anything happening.

One day, Keener ran into a couple of Christians on the street and they began to share the Gospel to him. Keener argued with them for quite some time. The Christians continued to quote from scripture to prove their point but Keener  told them “I do not believe in the Bible, I am an atheist. Can you give me anything else to convince me?”. The Christians, uninformed in apologetics, could not provide an answer to Keener and Keener decided to part ways with them. However, the encounter was not over yet.

On his way home, Keener says that he “felt God’s presence”. He studied different religions and this was “different from everything that he had studied”. It was also “different from anything he had experienced before”. Keener went to his room. Still feeling God’s presence, he pondered about his beliefs and what he was experiencing for a considerable period of time. God’s presence was “so overwhelming” and “so real” and Keener got the sense that He was “not going to leave him alone” until Keener either accepted or rejected Him.

In this situation, Keener, drawing from his earlier conversation with the two Christians and on his knees, said: 

God, I don’t understand, they said that Jesus rose from the dead and died for me and that makes me right with you. I do not understand how that works … So God, if you want to make me right with you, you’re going to have to do it yourself. 

Immediately after saying that, Keener felt “something rush into his body like he never felt before” and this made him jump back to his feet in shock. He did not know what was happening to him. 

Taking in this experience on the spot, Keener decided to dedicate his life to Christ. Back when he was atheist, one of his main gripes with Christians he saw was that they did not seem to give God much importance in their lives. Keener had always said that if he believed God existed, he would give Him his everything. Since Keener now knew that God did exist, Keener chose to give Him his all. He would go on to become a Christian pastor and esteemed New Testament scholar.

5. A Progressive Secularist Encounters the Blessed Virgin Mary[5]

Alphonse Ratisbonne (1814 – 1884) lived a very privileged life. He was born into a very wealthy and aristocratic Jewish family in France. He was also a well-educated lawyer, a partner in his family’s prestigious bank, and engaged to a fiancee whom he deeply loved.

Religiously, Ratisbonne was not a believing Jew, he was a “progressive theist”. He believed in a God but he did believe in any religion. He also believed that man should practice whatever faith he held in the way that he understood it. As Ratisbonne describes his beliefs prior to his conversion:

My own opinion was to abandon all forms of the religion, relying neither on books or on men, and to let each practice his faith however he understood it. … I was very progressive, you see!   

He also lived a worldly life. As he notes:

I loved only pleasures; business irritated me, the atmosphere of offices suffocated me; I thought that we are in the world to enjoy it; and, even though a certain prudishness kept me away from the basest pleasures and company, I nonetheless dreamed only of parties and enjoyments, which I indulged in with passion.

As for Ratisbonne’s views on Christianity, he despised it. When his brother, Theodore Ratisbonne, converted and became a Jesuit priest, Ratisbonne cut all ties with him and viewed him with disdain. 

Although Ratisbonne did not subscribe to any religion, including the Jewish faith of his heritage, he did have a soft spot for his fellow Jews and was active in a local organization that aimed to uplift their condition. 

Ratisbonne’s life continued along the same trajectory until his trip to Rome, which would change everything. One of his stops during this trip was the home of Baron de Bussieres, a friend of the family. At de Bussieres’ house, Ratisbonne and de Bussiere got into a passionate discussion about religion which ended with de Bussiere (who was a Christian) challenging Ratisbonne to an “innocent test”. De Bussiere challenged Ratisbonne to wear a Miraculous Medal (a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary popularized by St. Catherine Labore) and pray the Memorare (a prayer to Our Lady composed by St. Bernard) every morning and evening. 

Ratisbonne was stunned at the childishness of the proposition and his first reaction was to laugh, but he accepted the offer. If it did him no good, it would do him no harm. He also viewed the medal as a memento he could give his fiancee in the future.

Ratisbonne wore the medal and prayed the Memorare every morning and evening during his stay in Rome. Then came January 20, 1842, the day that would change his life forever.

Leaving a cafe that morning, Ratisbonne saw the carriage of de Bussieres and de Bussieres invited him for a ride. During their ride, de Bussieres told Ratisbonne that he had an errand to do. He had to make funeral arrangements for his friend who died recently, M. de Laferronays, at the sacristy of the church of San Andrea delle Fratte. He suggested that Ratisbonne wait in the carriage since what he had to do would only take a few minutes. Ratisbonne, however, decided to check out the church. 

The church of San Andrea delle Fratte was in Ratisbonne’s words, “small, poor, and deserted”. He was alone and no piece of art attracted his attention. Ratisbonne walked and looked around — recounting what happened next, he notes:

I had only been in the church a moment when I was suddenly seized with an indescribable agitation of mind. I looked up and found that the rest of the building had disappeared. One single chapel seemed to have gathered all the light and concentrated it in itself. In the midst of this radiance I saw someone standing on the altar, a lofty shining figure, all majesty and sweetness, the Virgin Mary just as she looks on this medal. Some irresistible force drew me toward her. She motioned to me to kneel down and when I did so, she seemed to approve. Though she never said a word, I understood her perfectly … I was there, prostrate, bathed in my tears, my heart beating out of my chest, when M. de Bussieres recalled me to life. I was unable to reply to his sudden questions, but finally I grabbed the medal that I had left around my neck, I bathed with kisses the image of the Virgin pouring forth rays of grace. “Oh! It was really she!”

I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know whether I was Alphonse, or someone else; I felt so entirely changed that I thought I was another self. I tried to find myself, and couldn’t. The most intense joy burst in the depths of my soul; I was unable to speak; I wanted to reveal nothing; I felt something solemn and sacred in me that made me ask to see a priest.

Baron de Bussieres, provides an account from his perspective:

I left him and went off to the sacristy to make some arrangements for the funeral. I could not have been away much more than ten minutes. When I returned I saw nothing of Ratisbonne at first. Then I caught sight of him on his knees, in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel. I went up to him and touched him. I had to do this three or four times before he became aware of my presence. Finally he turned toward me, face bathed in tears, clasped his hands together …  I helped Ratisbonne to his feet and led him, almost carrying him, out of the church. Then I asked him what was the matter, and where he wanted to go. “Take me wherever you like,” he cried, “after what I have seen, I shall obey.” I urged him to explain his meaning, but he was unable to do so—his emotion was too strong. Instead he took hold of his miraculous medal and kissed it with passionate emotion.

He begged me to take him to a priest, and he asked me when he could receive holy baptism … I took him at once to the Gesu to see Father de Villefort, who invited him to explain what had happened. Ratisbonne drew out his medal, kissed it, and showed it to us, saying, “I saw her! I saw her!” and again emotion choked his words, but soon he grew calmer and spoke … Brief as his account was, Ratisbonne could not utter it without frequently pausing for breath, and to subdue the overwhelming emotion he felt. We listened to him, awe mingled with joy and gratitude. One phrase struck us especially, so deep and mysterious was it: “She never said a word, but I understood her perfectly.” From this moment on, it was enough to hear him speak; faith exhaled from his heart like a precious perfume from a casket, that holds but cannot imprison.

Upon leaving Father de Villefort, we went to give thanks to God, first at Saint Mary Major, the basilica beloved of Our Lady, and then at Saint Peter’s. He prayed with great fervor at the tombs of the Holy Apostles.

Ratisbonne converted to Christianity after his experience. He called off his engagement with his fiancee, renounced his worldly life, and would go on to become a priest. He reconciled with his brother, Theodore, and would spend the rest of his life in the Holy Land – establishing religious communities, engaging in charitable work, and praying for the conversion of souls. In gratitude to our Lady, he added “Marie” to his name – Alphonse Marie Ratisbonne. 

Later on, Ratisbonne would learn that his brother, Fr. Theodore, had kept him in his prayers ever since Ratisbonne bitterly cut ties with him. Baron de Bussieres and his family also continually prayed for Ratisbonne after their conversation at his house. 

The apparition of Our Lady to Alphonse Ratisbonne is among the Church’s approved Marian apparitions. The apparition to Alphonse Ratisbonne, in particular, is known as “Our Lady of Zion”.

Outside view of the San Andrea delle Fratte church today

6. Rome’s Chief Rabbi Sees Jesus[6]

Rome was one of Europe’s most important Jewish communities in the early 20th century, and its leader during a portion of the 1940s was Rabbi Israel Zoli (1881 – 1956). 

Zoli was a devout Jew and intelligent man. He completed rabbinical schooling and received a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Florence with a specialization in psychology. During his time as the Chief Rabbi of Trieste (1918 – 1939), Zoli established himself as an academic and scholar. He wrote several notable scholarly works and served as a Professor of Semitic languages at the University of Padua. 

It is not uncommon for rabbis and Jews in general to have negative attitudes towards Jesus but this was not the case for Zoli, who viewed Jesus very positively and even felt drawn to Christianity. Zoli even wrote a work on Jesus entitled “The Nazarene”, which, although written from a Jewish perspective, received high praise from Christian circles. 

In 1939, Zoli left his longtime position as Chief Rabbi of Trieste to assume the position of Chief Rabbi of Rome. A number of years into this position, Zoli would have a religious experience that would cause him to convert to Christianity. This experience took place in 1944 and occurred while Zoli was celebrating Yom Kippur services (Yom Kippur is the most solemn holiday of the Jewish calendar). As Zoli recounts:

It was the Day of Atonement in the fall of 1944, and I was presiding over the religious service in the Temple. The day was nearing its end, and I was all alone in the midst of a great number of persons. I began to feel as though a fog were creeping into my soul; it became denser, and I wholly lost touch with the men and things around me. And just then I saw with my mind’s eye a meadow sweeping upward, with bright grass. In this meadow I saw Jesus Christ clad in a white mantle, and beyond His head the blue sky. I experienced the greatest interior peace. If I were to give an image of the state of my soul at that moment I should say a crystal-clear lake amid high mountains. Within my heart I found the words: “You are here for the last time.” I considered them with the greatest serenity of soul. The reply of my heart was: So it is, so it shall be, so it must be.

When Zoli went home, he was surprised to hear his wife tell him that when Zoli was before the Ark of the Torah during the celebration service, she saw a “white figure” of a man put his hands on Zoli’s head — in a manner that looked like a blessing.

A few days after that experience, Zoli resigned from his position as Chief Rabbi of Rome. He went to a Christian priest to receive instruction and a few weeks later, he was baptized into the Church. Unfortunately, Zoli was ostracized by the Jewish community after his conversion. He spent the rest of his life teaching and writing. He also founded a religious congregation dedicated to aiding Jews after their reception into the Church. 

After Zoli’s conversion, he would learn that many of his students at the University of Padua, who were priests, were praying for his conversion. As he notes in his autobiography:

[T]hey were remembering me in their holy Masses, asking God (as they told me years later) for my conversion.

7. An Experience Before the Blessed Sacrament[7]

As a young child, Hermann Cohen (1820 – 1871) was a pious Jew. He loved going to the synagogue and chanting prayers and psalms at home, an activity into which he would often draw his siblings. Cohen’s tremendous talents, however, eventually pulled him away from his religiosity. Cohen was gifted intellectually, but more than this, he was a musical prodigy. At the age of six, he was playing many of the popular opera tunes of his day (and he would even add improvisations of his own to these). By twelve, his professional recitals were the talk of his town. Unfortunately, Cohen’s mother entrusted him to a piano professor of great talent but loose morals. The example of his teacher had a negative effect on Cohen’s spiritual life. As Cohen later wrote:

[The teacher’s great genius] was enough to justify, in the eyes of the public, all of his whims and adventures, however irresponsible and scandalous. … Since I admired him above anyone, I soon began to imitate his wild behavior. He loved gambling; I, alas, early on acquired the taste for it. He loved the horses and all the pleasures, and since he found the purses of his admirers always open to satisfy all his caprices, I began to think that there could be no existence on earth happier than that of an artist.

In time, Cohen would go to Paris — one of Europe’s best centers of music — and it was there that his success would soar. Cohen became a darling of Europe’s cultural and artistic elite. Surrounded by attention and praise, and with his whims frequently indulged, Cohen became spoiled, arrogant, and self-centered.

For the next decade, Cohen lived a life of worldly sensuality. He partied, had sexual relationships with many women, and gambled, but Cohen’s “self-centered hedonism and irresponsibility” also took a toll on many of his relationships. 

At the age of twenty-six, Cohen began to reform his life. He abruptly broke off his romantic relationship with Celeste Mogadar, telling her that he was placing his life in the hands of God. Appalled with his life, Cohen began to rechart his trajectory more towards the Jewish religiosity of his childhood, returning, at least, to the practice of prayer. 

Some time afterward, a momentous life event would occur to Cohen. He was asked by a friend to direct the choir at a church service. It was at this service that Cohen would have an extraordinary experience during the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (a devotional ceremony wherein a priest blesses the congregation with the Holy Eucharist at the end of a period of Eucharistic adoration). As Cohen notes:

It happened during May 1847. Mary’s month was celebrated with great pomp at the Church of Sainte Valere … Prince Moskowa, who led these pious concerts, and whom I already had the honor of knowing, asked me one evening if I would take his place directing the choirs. I agreed and went, solely from my love of music and the desire to do a friend a favor. During the ceremony I felt nothing special, but at the moment of Benediction, even though I had no intention to prostrate myself like the rest of the congregation, I felt an indefinable agitation; my soul, deafened and distracted by the discord of the world, re-found itself, a bit like the prodigal son coming to his senses, and sensed that something previously entirely unknown was taking place. I felt for the first time a very powerful, but indefinable emotion. Without any participation of my will, I was forced, despite myself, to bow down. When I returned the following Friday, the same emotion came over me, even more powerfully, and I felt a great weight that descended over my whole body, forcing me to bow, even to prostrate myself, despite myself, and I was struck with the sudden thought of becoming Catholic. 

A few days later I was passing near the same Church of Sainte Valere; the bells were ringing for Mass. I went in and was present at the Holy Sacrifice, remaining motionless and attentive throughout. I stayed for one, two, three Masses without a thought of leaving, although I had no idea what was keeping me there. After having returned home, involuntarily I was led to go out again that evening and go back to the same place; the bells made me enter once again. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed and as soon as I saw it I was drawn to the altar rail and fell to my knees. This time, at the moment of Benediction it was easy for me to bow down, and getting up again I felt a very sweet peace in my whole being. I returned to my room and went to bed, but throughout the entire night, my mind was, whether in dream or awake, occupied with the thought of the Blessed Sacrament. I burned with impatience to be at more Masses. In the following days, I attended many at Sainte Valere, always with an inner joy that absorbed all my faculties.

I wanted to see a priest, to settle down the agitation that was incessantly troubling my spirit since this extraordinary event. Until now priests had been, for me, monsters to flee, and I do not know how I was led by an irresistible force to find one. Eventually I was introduced to Father Legrand. I told him what had happened to me. He listened with interest and exhorted me to be calm, to persevere in my current disposition, and to have wholehearted confidence in the paths that Divine Providence would not fail to point out to me. This cleric’s benevolent and kind welcome made a strong impression on me, and in an instant made fall one of the deepest prejudices I held. I had been afraid of priests! … Yet I found myself in the presence of a learned man, humble, kind and open-hearted, looking entirely to God, not himself.

Later that summer, Cohen would go to Ems, Germany to give a concert, and it was there that he would have another experience that would cement his conversion to Christianity. Recounting this second experience, Cohen notes:

The day after my arrival was a Sunday, the eighth of August, and not caring about human respect, that is, despite the presence of my friends, I went to Mass. There, bit by bit, the prayers, the presence—invisible, and yet felt by me—of a supernatural power began to act on me, agitate me, make me start trembling; in a word, divine grace deigned to descend on me with all its force. At the moment of elevation, all of a sudden I felt burst forth, behind my eyelids, a flood of tears that did not cease to flow with voluptuous abundance down my inflamed cheeks. O moment forever memorable for the salvation of my soul! I had You there, present, in my spirit, with all the celestial sensations that You brought down to me from on high! With passion I invoked the all-powerful and all-merciful God, that the exquisite memory of His beauty remain eternally engraved in my heart … and gratitude for the enormity of the blessings that He was flooding me with.

I remember having cried a few times as a child, but never, no, never did I know such tears. While they were drowning me, I felt surge up from the depths of my chest, split open by my conscience, the most tearing remorse over my entire past life. All of a sudden, and spontaneously, as though by intuition, I offered God a general confession, interior and rapid, of all of my enormous sins since childhood. I saw them there, piled up before me by the thousands, hideous, repulsive, revolting, deserving all of the anger of a sovereign Judge …  And yet, I also felt an unknown peace that soon spread over my entire soul like a soothing balm, that the God of mercy would forgive me these, that He would turn His gaze away from my crimes, that He would take pity on my sincere contrition, on my bitter sorrow. Yes, I felt that He would give me grace, and that He would accept in expiation my firm resolution to love Him above all else and to turn to Him from then on. 

When I left the church, I was already a Christian, as much a Christian as it is possible to be before baptism.

Cohen would go on to dedicate his life entirely to Christ. After being baptized, Cohen became a Carmelite priest and monk. He would play an instrumental role in establishing the Carmelite order in France, England, Ireland and Scotland – preaching and founding houses for the order.

Pope Francis During the Moment of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament

8. “I Saved Your Son”[8]

A Christian house church in Iran

Ali Akbar is a Muslim convert to Christianity. When he was thirty years old, Akbar was arrested because he was found to be a leader in his house church (the operation of house churches in Iran is deemed illegal). The security police interrogated him so harshly that his stomach began to bleed and his blood pressure dropped.

Akbar was rushed to the hospital. The doctor told him that he was going to die. They could not give him a blood transfusion because his blood pressure was so low that they could not get the needle into a vein. However, as Akbar notes, he suddenly felt “very warm like a fire was in my body”. His blood pressure became normal again and the doctor, shocked, sent him home. 

In the elevator of the hospital, on Akbar’s way out, Akbar had a vision of a man in a long white gown. He thought he was delirious. Later though, his mother said that she saw Jesus and that He told her: “I saved your son”. Akbar’s mother, a Muslim, then converted to Christianity and after hearing what had happened to Akbar and his mother, the rest of Akbar’s family converted to Christianity as well. 

Ali Akbar’s case is far from unique. There is a notable phenomenon in Islamic countries of Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus and converting to Christianity as a result. Firsthand testimonies of a large number of Muslims have been documented in works such as David Garrison’s A Wind In the House of Islam and Tom Doyle’s Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World?. Akbar’s case is one of many recorded in David Garrison’s book. 


Christian religious experiences have graced many throughout history, including our modern age. What is remarkable about these experiences is that they not only occur to Christians but to non-Christians as well (e.g. atheists and agnostics, Jews, Muslims, etc). Furthermore, many of these experiences possess Christian elements (e.g. taking place in a Christian church, the individual has visions of Jesus, Mary, or a Christian saint, taking place right after a conversation with Christian missionaries, etc) as well as extraordinary elements. These extraordinary elements make supernatural explanations for these experiences more likely than natural explanations. Among the cases we have looked at in this article, extraordinary elements include (listing the ones I find particularly compelling):

  • Adasevic having recurring dreams every night of a man who later identified as a Christian saint, who he did not know at that point in his life, and Adasevic having another dream of this saint when he started to doubt his decision to no longer perform abortions.
  • Garte “listening just as much as the audience” during his experience, him never considering the things “he” had said during his experience, and him finding some of the concepts “he” was talking about during his experience “unfamiliar”. 
  • Read’s tears drying up instantaneously – indicating that her experience was not only subjective and internal, but that there was an external force at work.
  • Zoli having a vision of Jesus that was independently corroborated by his wife when he got home.
  • Cohen being compelled to prostrate himself, independent of his will, twice (with the second instance being stronger than the first) – leading him to think about converting to Christianity. 
  • Akbar’s striking healing being followed by visions of Jesus experienced by both him and his mother.

Ultimately, Christian religious experiences provide further evidence for the truth of the Christian faith as well as the existence of the spiritual world.

The evidence continues to pile up –  the evidence for Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ resurrection, Christian miraculous healings, and now Christian religious experiences. Stay tuned for more historical lines of evidence supporting Christianity with the next post being about the evidence for demonic activity.


  1. Stagnaro, A. (2017). “Abortionist Quits After St. Thomas Aquinas Visits Him in a Dream.” Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/abortionist-quits-after-st-thomas-aquinas-visits-him-in-a-dream
  2. Garte, S. (2020). “I Assumed Science Had All the Answers. Then I Started Asking Inconvenient Questions.” Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march/sy-garte-science-answers-inconvenient-questions.html
  3. Kandra, G. (2016). “From scoffing atheist to devout Catholic: the powerful conversion story of acclaimed poet Sally Read”. Retrieved from: https://aleteia.org/blogs/aleteia-blog/from-scoffing-atheist-to-devout-catholic-the-powerful-conversion-story-of-acclaimed-poet-sally-read/. See also Read, Night’s Bright Darkness, pg. 42.
  4. Dr. Sean McDowell. (2021, April 30). “Behind the Scenes with Craig Keener (The People, Books, and Events that Shaped His Life”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/s3iq3jCDza0. See also Hayden Clark. (2019, October 28). “Craig Keener: From Atheism to Christianity”. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=injEbY_HnlA
  5. Schoeman, “Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ”, pgs. 12-34
  6. Schoeman, “Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ”, pgs. 60-67
  7. Schoeman, “Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ”, pgs. 35-51
  8. Garrison, A Wind In The House Of Islam, pgs. 122-123

The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Part 2 of 2)

Jesus heals a paralytic at Capernaum (Mk 2:1-12)

To return to part one of this series, click here.

1. Introduction

In part one of this series, we examined the Gospels and Acts as historical sources about Jesus of Nazareth and the early Church. In particular, we examined multiple factors that influenced the contents of these texts (e.g. genre, time of writing, authorship, the traditioning community they arose from, etc) and discussed how these factors point to the Gospels and Acts being generally reliable historical sources.

In this part of the series (part two), we will tackle the subject of historical reliability by examining the contents of the Gospels and Acts. We will examine the Gospels in terms of the geographical information they provide about Palestine, the local color they reflect, the information they contain that enjoy robust critical support and corroboration from archaeology, as well as compare their content with those of the later apocryphal gospels. Likewise, we will examine Acts in terms of the geographical information it provides about various places, the local color it reflects, and the support it enjoys from archaeology.

With that said, let us begin our discussion on the Gospels and see how their contents argue for their reliability as historical sources.

2. The Gospels

2.1. Geography

As a writer, imagine being given the task of providing substantial and accurate geographical information about a country you have never been to (e.g. Rome, Korea, Canada, etc). You are asked to convey accurate information about local towns, regions, places, bodies of water, and travel routes — how difficult would this be? You might think that this task would require a significant amount of effort and research, but that in time, it is a task you can do sufficiently.

Now turn back the clock 2,000+ years. You are now a writer in the first century Roman Empire. The Internet did not exist. You do not have the privilege of modernity’s rich and accessible book culture or the privilege of modern travel such as cars, navigation software (GPS or Waze), modern vessels, planes, etc. How difficult is your task now? If you were a writer in the first century, the task of acquiring substantial geographical knowledge about a country you have never been to and getting its geography right is extremely difficult (not to mention expensive!). Yet, the Gospel authors were able to do this with the land of Palestine.

The Gospels display a high level of geographical knowledge about Palestine. Mark names thirteen towns in Palestine, Matthew names sixteen, Luke names sixteen, and John names thirteen.[1] These range from well-known towns like Jerusalem to more obscure towns like Aenon or Chorazin which, as scholar Craig Keener notes, would not have been known outside Palestine.[2]

When it comes to regions in Palestine and its surrounding areas, Mark names four, Matthew names seven, Luke names eight, and John names three (e.g. Decapolis, Samaria, Galilee, etc).[3]

As for local places, Mark names three, Matthew names four, Luke names two, and John names four (e.g. Gabbatha, Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, etc).[4] In addition to this, Mark, Matthew, and Luke know that there is a Judean desert near the Jordan.[5]

When it comes to local bodies of water, Mark, Matthew, and Luke each name two while John mentions five (e.g. Bethesda, Kidron, river Jordan, etc).[6]

Knowledge of “place names” like the above is not trivial information.[7] As we shall see later when we compare the canonical Gospels to the later apocryphal gospels (section 3.5), this kind of information was hard to get.

Another notable point is that the Gospels mention place names at similar frequencies despite their individual differences. Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John mention 5.404, 4.905, 5.087, and 4.921 names respectively (roughly five each) every 1,000 words.[8] If the Gospel authors were spreading out place names in their works to “make their stories seem authentic”, we would expect greater variances in frequency. One author would put in a lot of names while another would put in considerably less.[9] The fact that the Gospel authors mention place names at similar frequencies despite “variation within the types of geographical names they mention” suggests that they were doing so as a result of natural, truthful reportage.[10] As scholar Peter Williams notes:

The even distribution of place names in the four Gospels is unlikely to be the result of each of the four writers making a deliberate effort to spread names out, but is exactly the sort of pattern that might occur through unconscious behavior, recording places naturally when relevant to their stories.[11]

The Gospels also display accurate knowledge of roads and travel. All four Gospels know that traveling to Jerusalem (elevation about 750 meters) entails “going up” while Mark and Luke mention that leaving Jerusalem entails “going down”.[12] The parable of the good Samaritan (only found in Luke) accurately describes travel from Jerusalem to Jericho:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed … Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side”.

Jericho is the lowest city on earth, over 800 feet below sea level.[13] Traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho involves a descent of one kilometer so “going down” is certainly the right expression. The parable also correctly assumes a direct route between Jerusalem and Jericho.

In John 2:12, the journey from Cana to Capernaum is accurately described as going “down”. Likewise, John 4 has a nobleman come to Jesus while he is in Cana and ask him to “come down” to Capernaum. Luke 4:31 is accurate in describing the journey from Nazareth to Capernaum as going “down” as well.

In Matt 11:21-24//Lk 10:13-15, Jesus rebukes three Jewish towns — Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and contrasts the first two with the Gentile towns of Tyre and Sidon:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.

The obscure town of Chorazin mentioned here is located on the road to Bethsaida and just a couple of miles north of Capernaum.[14]

Giving further examples, Luke and John know that there are two routes between Judea and Galilee: the hilly route via Samaria and the indirect route avoiding the Samaritan areas via the Jordan Valley.[15] Mark and Matthew know that one can go from the Sea of Galilee directly into hill country.[16] The Gospel authors correctly describe travel to Jerusalem in ways that vary but cohere with each other. As Williams notes:

[Luke] describes a journey to Jerusalem via Jericho (Luke 18:36) and then through the villages of Bethphage and Bethany (Luke 19:29). John depicts Jesus as making his final approach to Jerusalem from the east via Bethany (John 12:1).

The information in Luke and John accords with the way Matthew and Mark portray Jesus’s final approach to Jerusalem. He is said to go from Galilee to the Transjordan (Matt 19:1; Mark 10:1) and to approach Jerusalem from Jericho (Matt 20:29; Mark 10:46) and then Bethphage, which is located by the narrative as on the Mount of Olives (Matt 21:1; Mrk 11:1).

In the end, the Gospels display substantial and accurate knowledge of Palestinian geography.[18] This argues for their historical reliability and points to the conclusion that their authors drew on eyewitness knowledge (i.e. their own eyewitness knowledge, the testimony of other eyewitnesses, or oral tradition deriving from eyewitness testimony). As scholar Simon Gathercole notes:

It is hard to fake accurate geography. If you try to, you get it wrong … The New Testament Gospel writers could not possibly have got the details that they got right … unless they had eyewitness knowledge or knowledge from eyewitness sources.[19]

Likewise, Williams comments:

[The Gospels are] valuable geographical sources … they are not what we would expect from people who made up stories at a geographical distance.[20]

2.2. Elements from Jesus’ Time and Location

If the Gospels contain authentic reminisces of Jesus, we should expect them to firmly reflect the culture in which Jesus lived — Jewish Palestine. The Gospels succeed in doing this very well. As scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz note, Palestinian-Jewish coloring pervades our Gospel accounts about Jesus.[21]

If the accounts in the Gospels were made up by writers outside Palestine, such as in Rome, Greece, or Turkey, for example, we would not expect them to reflect much Palestinian color. I mentioned earlier that it was difficult to acquire substantial and accurate geographical knowledge of a country you have been to in the first century. The same can be said about local color. It is difficult to write about a place as though you were there. If doing this is still difficult now, how much more difficult would it have been back in the first century!

Likewise, if the accounts in the Gospels were made up by later Gentile Christians, we would not expect them to reflect significant Jewish traits. Large numbers of Gentiles entered the Church in the decades following Pentecost, and the Jesus movement gradually became detached from its Jewish roots.[22] Gentiles would have had limited knowledge of Jewish culture as ethnic and religious outsiders. (In the same way that non-Jews today, including Christians, know little about Jewish culture).

Ultimately, if the Gospels reflect strong Palestinian-Jewish color, then this argues for the accounts within them deriving from eyewitness knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry. 

I will divide the subsequent discussion into three — Names, Palestinian Traits, and Jewishness. There will be some overlap between these subsections. Names, for example, are both Palestinian and Jewish. On the other hand, all information in the Jewishness subsection fits a Palestinian Jewish environment, but some of it, in particular, reflects Jewish Palestine distinctively. Despite this overlap, I separated these sections this way for the purposes of structure. With that said, let us tackle our first subsection — Names.

2.2.1. Names

An impressive line of evidence for the reliability of the Gospels (and Acts!) has to do with the names within them. A series of scholarly studies have shown that Jews located in different places in the Roman Empire had rather distinct naming patterns and that the popularity of names among Jews outside Palestine bore little relationship to those inside Palestine.[23]

Scholar Richard Bauckham’s study, based on Israeli scholar Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, found that the relative frequency of names in the Gospels corresponds very well to the frequency of Palestinian Jewish names during the time of Jesus.[24] The most popular Palestinian Jewish male names, for example, were Simon and Joseph. These names make up 15.6% of the modern database. On the other hand, men named Simon and Joseph comprise 18.2% of male names in the Gospels and Acts (in Acts’ narratives in Palestine)This remarkable correspondence extends down the rankings of the most common male names, and to female names as well. Furthermore, Bauckham notes that lesser-known names in the Gospels such as Jairus, Nathaniel, Malchus, Jonah, Nicodemus, etc are sometimes attested in Palestine but never outside of it. It must also be noted that the name correspondence in question shines through when one adds up all the names in the Gospels and Acts rather than viewing each text individually. The more data is factored in, the clearer the correspondence becomes.

Ultimately, as Keener notes:

[T]he names in the Gospels are] precisely the names archaeology associates with their time and place, even if no reference works in antiquity collected this information. In general, the most common names in the Gospels were the most popular Judean/Galilean names in that period.[25] 

The names of people in the Gospels are not what we would expect if the narratives were made up by individuals outside Palestine. On the other hand, they are exactly what we would expect if the Gospel accounts are authentic — stemming from eyewitness knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry.

2.2.2. Palestinian Traits

The Gospels are very Palestinian, containing many traits reflecting Jesus’ environment.

Mark, Matthew, and John correctly name the “Sea of Galilee” as it is known locally.[26] Outsiders would have viewed the Sea of Galilee as a lake since it only stretches 21 kilometers as a body of water. To local Galileans who had not traveled far, however, this was known as a sea. Other times, the Gospel authors simply call the Sea of Galilee “the sea”.[27] The first time the author of John’s gospel mentions the Sea of Galilee, he rightly notes that it was also called the “the Sea of Tiberias” (Jhn 6:1). The body of water was also named after Tiberias, a major town on the shore.[28] Luke, who is traditionally known to be a Gentile author, diverges from the other Gospel authors and calls the Sea of Galilee “the Lake”.[29]

The Gospels refer to the town of Bethsaida by its pre-30 AD name. Bethsaida was renamed “Julia” in 30 AD, the year of Jesus’ crucifixion.[30] The fact that the Gospels preserve the town’s name during Jesus’ ministry, “Bethsaida” (Mk 6:45; 8:22; Matt 11:21//Luke 10:13; Jhn 1:44; 12:21), is remarkable.

The Gospels are consistent with what we know of occupations in Palestine.

According to the Gospels, Jesus ministered in Capernaum and Bethsaida, which were fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee.[31] Jesus ministering in these towns and even making one of them, Capernaum, his “home base” for his ministry (Matt 4:13), fits perfectly with Jesus calling a number of fishermen to become his disciples (Mk 1:14-20; Lk 5:1-11).

The Gospels mention a whole group of tax collectors at Capernaum (Mk 2:14-15; Matt 9:9-10). Again, this fits well with what we know of the town. Capernaum was situated at a strategic point at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It was a key location for collecting customs on what crossed the border of the territory of Herod Antipas.[32] Likewise, Luke mentions that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector in Jericho (Lk 19:2). Jericho was the major town on Pontius Pilate’s side of the border of Judea with Peraea, the territory of Herod Antipas.[33] In light of this information, Williams comments:

Matthew and Mark, on the one hand, and Luke, on the other, have independently recorded different events with tax collectors in different border towns. The Gospels show knowledge of the local tax systems.[34]

When we look at Jesus’ parables in the Gospels, we find that they reflect a Galilean environment, which was heavily rural and agricultural.[35] This matches Jesus’ extensive Galilean ministry.

Farmers sowed seeds by the “broadcast” method (Mk 4:3-9). The mustard seed was the smallest seed typically cultivated in Palestine (Mk 4:30-32). A dragnet was used to trawl the Sea of Galilee in its shallower areas for fish (Mk 13:47-50) and seine nets were cast on the lake (Matt 13:47-50). Although Roman cities had bakeries, Galilean village women baked their own bread for their families (Matt 12:33//Lk 13:21). Building one’s house on sand rather than rock recalls the deep wadis that usually remained dry or had a small stream of water in it, but could turn into raging torrents after heavy rains (Matt 7:24-27). Vineyards and hirelings were important features of Galilean life during Jesus’ time (Matt 20). In the end, as Keener notes:

[Jesus’ parables] bear many traits reflecting their Jewish and often even rural Galilean flavor. Although later Christians employed illustrations, they were usually the sort of illustrations characteristic of the Greek world, not the sort of story parables at home specifically in Jewish Palestine.[36]

Jesus’ language of a millstone being hung around a person who is then drowned in the depths of the sea (Mk 9:42) fits the farmland around the Sea of Galilee very well.[37] In fact, ancient millstones can still be viewed in the ruins of Capernaum today.

In Lk 7:11-17, Jesus is said to have spoken to a widow at a public funeral procession in Nain before going up to the bier. In Galilee, mourning women did walk in front of the casket, as opposed to the better known Judean custom in which women walked behind it.[38]

Sycamore trees did not grow in northern Mediterranean countries (e.g. Italy, Greece, Turkey, etc). They do grow, however, in the location of Luke’s account of Zacchaeus — Jericho (Lk 19:1).[39]

The debate over which mountain to worship on (Jhn 4:21), Mount Zion in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim in Samaria, was a significant point of conflict between Jews and Samaritans in Palestine.[40]

The Gospels attest that Jesus was arrested in a garden called Gethsemane. This place is not referenced in any other ancient writing but its name betrays its Palestinian origin. As Williams notes:

Gethsemane [in Aramaic] means “oil press” (i.e., press for olives) and is perfectly located on the Mount of Olives [(Lk 22:39)] … However, nowhere do the Gospel writers draw attention to the meaning of Gethsemane and how it particularly suited the location. They just knew.[41]

Examples here can be easily multiplied. (If there was one section I would extend, it would be this one — there are so many fascinating examples!). As Keener notes, the Gospels reflect “abundant” Palestinian traits.[42] The fact that the Gospels are “written in Greek and contextualized for (at least mostly) Diaspora audiences highlights all the more clearly the frequent non-Diaspora elements that remain”.[43]

2.2.3. Jewishness

As we would expect from biographies of a Jewish teacher in Palestine, the Gospels are deeply Jewish. The Gospels reference and talk about Jewish practices, disputes, scripture, thought, politics, etc throughout their narratives. In this section, however, I want to hone in on Jesus in particular and see how the Gospels reflect his Jewishness both in general matters and down to minute aspects of speech. I will also cover some examples of Jewish disputes that Jesus commented on.

Many characteristics of Jesus’s style such as preaching in parables, employing beatitudes, and the use of “amen”, are all distinctively Jewish.[44] Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” and his favorite self-designation, “Son of Man”, are Jewish as well. Both concepts are drawn from the book of Daniel (Dan 2:44; 7:13-14).[45]

To give more examples, Jewish teachers often employed the phrase “to what shall I/we compare?”, especially to introduce parables.[46] Jesus did the same (Matt 11:16//Lk 7:31; Lk 13:18, 20). Jesus used the phrase ‘So-and-so is like’ (Mt. 11.16; 13.24; 25.1; cf. also Mk 4.26, 31; 13.34; Lk. 6.48-49). This is common in Jewish rhetoric.[47] In Mk 12:30-31//Matt 22:37-39, Jesus links the two greatest commandments on the basis of the common opening word, we’ahavta (‘You shall love’). This linkage reflects a common Jewish interpretive technique.[48]

In the Gospels, Jesus employs a standard type of Jewish argument called qal vaomer (Matt 7:11/Lk 11:13; Matt 10:25; 12:12).[49] This can be seen when Jesus says “how much more?” (e.g. in Matt 10:25, “If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!”). Jesus also uses this figure of speech in his sermons (Matt 6:26, 30//Lk 12:25, 28).

When Jesus asks a question about the Messiah and David in Mk 12:35-37, he does so in a way similar to other Jewish teachers, asking didactic questions that functioned as “haggadic antimony”, in which both sides of a question were correct but their relationship needed to be resolved.[50]

In Jhn 6:32-58, Jesus closely matches a rabbinic form of homily known as a proem midrash — executing a pattern of “first text plus exposition, second text plus exposition, followed by a return to the first text plus exposition”, and resulting in a tightly knit unity.[51]

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees regarding divorce (Mk 10:2) is characteristically Jewish.[52] Other first century Jewish teachers looked to the creation narrative for God’s ideal purposes on various issues. Jesus did exactly this when he referred to the creation of man and woman in Genesis. The Pharisees’ question about divorce reflects a debate that surviving sources attribute to Pharisaic schools in Jesus’ generation as well.

In Matt 23:25-26, Jesus complains that Pharisees insist on cleaning the outside of the cup but do not clean their hearts first. He then goes on to say that the inside of a cup should be cleaned first, alluding to a debate that extant sources say was raging between two schools of Pharisees in Jesus’ time. These groups were the Shamnmaites, who were divided over whether the inside or the outside of a cup should be purified first, and the Hillelites, who insisted on cleaning the inner part first.[53]

Again, a lot more examples can be given here. As Keener notes, one could “pile up countless other samples” of Jesus’ sayings “fitting a Palestinian Jewish environment”.[54] Suffice it to say that the Gospels are deeply Jewish and this applies to the person of Jesus Himself. As Jewish scholar David Flusser notes, the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels is consistent and Jewish.[55] Similarly, scholar James Charlesworth comments the following on the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels:

Jesus was a very devout Jew. In fact, he was more Jewish than Philo, who mixed Jewish traditions in the caldron of Greek ideals and myths, and Josephus, who explained Jewish theology as if it was like Greek philosophy.[56]

2.2.4. Conclusion: Elements from Jesus’ Time and Location

In the end, the Gospels reflect strong local color. As Keener comments:

[L]ocal color pervades the Gospels so thoroughly … that we sometimes wonder how well Diaspora audiences understood some of the details.[57]

This argues for their historical reliability and points to the conclusion that their authors drew on eyewitness knowledge regarding Jesus’ life and ministry.

2.3. Critical Corroboration

Adding on to what we discussed so far, many Gospel narratives enjoy robust support from critical analysis. As a result, the probability of their historicity is very likely. Although the survey below is not exhaustive, it provides a good overview of the corroboration of the Gospels. The great majority of aspects of Jesus’ life I mention below are widely affirmed by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike, and all aspects mentioned enjoy strong critical support.

To start, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is highly probable.[58] It is unlikely that the early Church would have invented Jesus, whom they believed to be God and thus sinless, undertaking an action associated with repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

It is likely that Jesus ministered in Capernaum and Bethsaida, and made Capernaum his home base for his ministry.[59] No one would have invented fishing villages as sites of a great person’s ministry. Furthermore, as Keener notes regarding Jesus and Capernaum:

Jesus’ association with Capernaum is multiply attested in various strata of tradition (e.g., Mk 1:21; 2:1; Matt 4:13; Lk 4:31; Jn 2:12), including “Q” (Matt 8:5//Lk 7:1).[60]

It is also very probable that Jesus experienced resistance to his preaching at Capernaum (Matt 11:21-24//Lk 10:13-15).[61] In addition to being embarrassing, the authenticity of this tradition is supported by the fact that Capernaum later became a center of Christianity. As Keener notes:

Later Christians probably would have been loath to fabricate opposition to Jesus’ ministry in his adopted town. Indeed, far from testifying that the saying is a later Christian invention, Capernaum’s unrepentance suggests that the saying dates to Jesus’ lifetime, since, as we have noted, Capernaum later became a center in Galilean Christianity.[62]

Jesus likely experienced resistance at Bethsaida and Chorazin (Matt 11:21; Lk 10:13) as well, since this attestation is likewise unflattering to Jesus.[63] Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, this passage of Jesus’ rebuke of three Jewish towns (Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida) displays intimate familiarity with Galilean geography. This argues for the tradition originating from very early Palestinian sources.

It is highly likely that Jesus called some fishermen and tax collectors to be his disciples. Jesus calling fishermen coheres perfectly with his ministering in fishing villages such as Capernaum and Bethsaida. Furthermore, as scholar Ben Witherington notes, the saying “fishers of humans” (Mk 1:17) is hardly a later Christian image for mission.[64] The metaphor, however, does make sense if some of Jesus’ earliest disciples were fishermen. Luke also attests to the “fishers of humans” saying in a different context and form (Lk 5:10), making the saying multiply attested, and thus, more likely to be authentic. Jesus’ calling of tax collectors, on the other hand, is unlikely to be invented since Palestinian Jews disdained the profession.[65] The calling of tax collectors also coheres with a secure element of the tradition — Jesus’ outreach to sinners.[66]

It is highly likely that Jesus called twelve disciples to form his inner circle, with the number twelve representing the twelve tribes of Israel.[67] The existence of the Twelve is not only attested in the Gospels (Mk 3:13-19; Matt 10:1-4; Lk 8:1; Jhn 6:70) and Acts (Acts 1:12-26), it is also attested in a primitive Christian creed embedded in Paul’s letters (1 Cor 15:3-ff). This creed is widely viewed by scholars as the oldest extant Christian tradition — dating within five years of the death of Jesus (30-35 AD)![68] They also affirm that this creed stems from the Jerusalem church, which was the “headquarters” of the early Church.[69] In addition to being multiply attested, no one would have invented the Twelve and placed Judas inside of it.

The evidence for Jesus being a miracle worker is so strong that virtually all contemporary scholars, including skeptical scholars, believe that Jesus was a healer and exorcist, who performed deeds that were viewed by his contemporaries as miracles.[70] The disagreement among scholars is not over whether Jesus performed miracles or not, but over how these miracles are to be interpreted (i.e. healings of organic illnesses and therefore pointing to divine causation, healings of psychosomatic illnesses, or the result of the placebo effect). All five sources behind the Gospels (Mark, Q, M, L, and J) and the Jewish historian Josephus attest that Jesus performed miracles (see footnote 71 for more information on Josephus’ attestation).[71] The Gospels and Josephus both agree that Jesus’ success in drawing large crowds stemmed from two factors — miracle-working and compelling teaching.

Later hostile sources, both Jewish and pagan (the Talmud and the pagan critic Celsus), also affirm that Jesus was a miracle worker, but they attribute his actions to sorcery.[72] These attestations cohere well with the Jewish polemic recorded in Mark and Q (Mk 3:20-30; Matt 12:22-32//Lk 11:14-23), which states that Jesus healed by calling on a demonic power. This polemic is likely authentic. In addition to being multiply attested, it is unlikely that the early Church would have invented a charge that cast Jesus in an ambiguous light.[73] If this polemic and Jesus’ rebuttal of it in Mk 3:23-24 were not historical, it begs the question — “Why answer a charge that was not leveled?”. The embarrassing account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6), his own hometown, as well as his being able to heal only a few individuals there due to lack of faith, is likely authentic as well.[74] Ultimately, Jesus being a miracle worker is scarcely disputed in scholarship. As scholar Graham Twelftree notes:

There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works.[75]

Likewise, scholars Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans note:

Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus’ ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as “miracles”.[76]

Moving on, John the Baptist’s doubts about Jesus are very likely historical (Matt 11:2-11//Lk 7:19-28). No one would have invented such a tradition.[77] Not only was John a very respected religious figure in Palestine, but the Gospel narrative does not even conclude with a clear statement of John’s renewed faith. There are also many reasons supporting the authenticity of Jesus’ response to John’s doubts in this passage (Matt 11:5-6//Lk 7:22-23) — it is characteristic of Jesus’ responses (fitting the Messianic secret, a Middle Eastern teaching style, and Jesus’ fondness of riddles), the gospel to the “poor” coheres with other Q tradition about Jesus (Mat 5:3//Lk 6:20), and the saying exhibits Semitic structure.[78]

In general, Jesus’ controversial actions are unlikely to have been invented. One example of this is Jesus’ dining with sinners.[79] Another example would be Jesus’ violation of his contemporaries’ conventional purity boundaries, which as Keener notes, “appears throughout the gospel tradition”.[80] The Gospels portray Jesus touching the unclean, including lepers (Mk 1:41), and most impure of all, corpses (Mk 5:41; cf. Lk 7:14). They also recount Jesus publicly acknowledging the touch of a bleeding woman (Mk 5:31-33), which should have rendered him impure. As Keener notes regarding Jesus’ dining with sinners and his violations of his contemporaries’ standard purity boundaries:

That most of Jesus’ religious contemporaries did not share Jesus’ practice [of dining with sinners] is not difficult to understand. Table fellowship established something of a covenant relationship; eating with sinners thus would appear to connote acceptance of them. By contrast, a pious person normally preferred to eat with scholars.

Pure table-fellowship was a primary defining characteristic of the Pharisaic movement. Scripture was already clear that one should not have fellowship with sinners (Ps 1:1; 119:63; Prov 13:20; 14:7; 28:7), though the point in each instance was to warn against being influenced by sinners. Jewish tradition developed this warning against improper association with the wicked. Jesus’ behavior thus thoroughly violated his contemporaries’ understanding of holiness. Yet had the Pharisees valued his objective more than his method they should not have been annoyed. In Jesus’ case the influence was going one way — from Jesus to the sinners (Mk 2:155, 17; Lk 15:1; cf. Ps 25:8) … Jesus goes even to the most obviously sinful and seeks their repentance. This behavior was so shocking that it left an indelible mark in the traditions about him.

[Likewise, when it comes to Jesus violating his peers’ conventional purity boundaries,] Jesus does not explicitly address contracting impurity so much as he removes the impurity [through healing the individual] … Presumably the [Gospel] writers viewed such cases the way they viewed Jesus’ contact with sinners: the true influence flowed from Jesus to others, not the reverse. Nevertheless, they are no more likely to have deliberately invented this pervasive yet potentially controversial emphasis in Jesus’ behavior toward the impure than they are to have invented his welcome of sinners.

Earlier, we discussed the Jewish polemic that Jesus healed by calling on a demonic power. This is not the only polemic attested in our sources. The Gospels state that Jesus was called a “glutton-and-drunkard” (Matt 11:19//Lk 7:34).[82] No one would have invented this charge. In all likelihood, it is authentic.

When it comes to Jesus’ teachings, it is highly probable that he taught the primacy of love.[83] It is difficult to see how love came to enjoy such a central prominence in the early Church’s ethics if the teaching did not originate from Jesus. As Keener notes:

[O]nly Jesus wielded the moral authority among his followers to focus their ethics so profoundly around a single theme. The distinctive primacy that love plays in virtually all early Christian ethics would not have been possible had the Christians not derived this primacy from the mouth of the one Teacher who united them. Thence comes the early Christian “law of love,” attested not only in Mark’s tradition but in Paul (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14), James (Jas 2:8), and Johannine tradition (Jn 13:14-35).[84]

Similarly, scholar James Charlesworth notes:

Jesus most likely taught a love command that was unique. Jesus elevated the concept of love and made it central to his teachings; he even seems to have taught that his followers should love their enemies.[85]

The beatitudes of Jesus (Matt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-23) are widely accepted as authentic.[86] Beatitudes are a Jewish rhetorical form. The Old Testament authors, the Qumran, the New Testament writers, and later rabbis all used beatitudes. It would be strange if Jesus were an exception to this. Furthermore, the contents of Jesus’ beatitudes cohere very well with secure elements of the tradition — Jesus being an eschatological prophet, his proclamation of the kingdom of God, the content of many of his parables, as well as his basic exhortations to mercy, love, and forgiveness.[87] The short Q beatitudes also reflect the same structure as the M beatitudes, multiply attesting that Jesus used beatitudes in chains like Ben Sira and Qumran.

The parables of Jesus in the Gospels are very likely authentic. They reflect Jesus’ agrarian environment as opposed to the urban environment of the early Church.[88] As Keener notes:

Jesus most often told stories about agriculture and the daily life of his common hearers, a characteristic that supports authenticity in his Galilean context”.[89]

Furthermore, bracketing the reportage of Jesus’ parables, other New Testament writers do not employ parables when typically addressing urban communities outside Palestine. Early Christian writers scarcely used parables too. Since parables were not a popular rhetorical form in early Christianity, later Christians are unlikely to have invented parables. Even if we were to suppose that they did invent parables, they likely would not have reflected Jesus’ environment, as the parables in the Gospels do. Whenever early Christians employed illustrations, they typically reflected the Greek world. For these reasons, scholars widely accept Jesus’ parables in the Gospels. As Keener notes:

[Jesus’ parables] are among the least debatable, most securely authentic elements of the Jesus tradition.[90]

It is highly likely that Jesus taught a form of the Lord’s prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4).[92] Although Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the prayer agree on many points, they also differ significantly. As Charlesworth notes, this suggests that they derive from two independent sources. Furthermore, the prayer echoes the Kaddish as well as the language of other early Jewish prayers, so it cannot be an invention of the later Gentile church.[93]

The account of Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, in which Jesus blesses and commissions Peter (Matt 16:13-17), is very likely historical.[94] Beatitudes and comissionings appear elsewhere in Jesus’ words and elsewhere in early Judaism. Jewish teachers sometimes pronounced blessings on those who gave correct responses, just as Jesus does to Peter in the narrative. Jesus’ renaming of Simon to Peter fits Jesus’ authority as a teacher and biblical naming traditions (e.g. God renaming Abram to Abraham). The name Peter is not a common name so it is apt to be a symbolic nickname. The Aramaic translation of Peter, “Cephas”, is multiply attested, including in the primitive Christian creed in 1 Cor 15:3-ff. This points to a very early tradition. Of course, Jesus granting Peter the chief rank among his disciples in this account “best explains his multiply attested leadership role both in the gospel tradition and in the apostolic church.[95] Lastly, the passage contains several Palestinian-Jewish elements. As Keener notes:

[N]early every other element of the blessing (not least the blessing formula itself) … [is] at home in a Palestinian Jewish setting.[96] 

Moving into the passion narrative, the Last Supper enjoys strong critical support.[97] It is multiply attested not only in the Gospels (Mk 14:12-26; Jhn 13:1-4) but even in Paul’s letters. Quoting St. Paul at length (1 Cor 11:23-26):

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

If the Last Supper was known by Paul then the tradition must be very early. This is supported by the recorded words of Jesus in the Last Supper, which display various early linguistic features. In addition to being very early, the tradition satisfies the criterion of embarrassment. Being asked to eat one’s flesh and blood is scandalous — no one would have invented such a controversial command. John’s gospel, in fact, reports that many of Jesus’ disciples had difficulty in accepting this teaching of his (Jhn 6:60-62). In the end, as Keener notes:

Jesus’ words about the cup, the bread, his body and blood are among the most secure elements of our traditions about Jesus.[98]

One of the most striking things about the Gospels is that the disciples are portrayed in an unflattering light in many instances.[99] Indeed, as Keener notes, it is interesting that Jesus’ leading disciples, though viewed as a foundation for the Church (Matt 16:18; Eph 2:20; Rev 21:14), “never achieve a heroic status in the Gospels”.[100] When Jesus asks his disciples to stay up with him in prayer on the night of his arrest, they struggle to do so and eventually fall asleep (Mk 14:32-37). Judas, one of the Twelve, betrays Jesus (Mk 14:43-44). Once Jesus is arrested, the disciples flee and abandon him (Mk 14:50). Peter, the leader of the early Church, denies Jesus several times after inquiries from others about his identity and affiliation (Mk 14:66-71). These slew of embarrassing details are likely historical.

Moving on, it is highly probable that Jesus was weak enough to carry his own cross, needing the help of a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, to carry it all the way to Calvary (Mk 15:21). As Keener notes:

Since condemned criminals normally carried their own crosses, it would increase the perception of Jesus’ shame if he proved too weak to carry his own … [Furthermore,] Simon does not bear the cross willingly as a mere invention to fulfill a disciple paradigm.[101]

Jesus was indisputably crucified under Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea.[102] This event is supported by a number of Christian and non-Christian sources. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is attested across the New Testament texts. It is also attested by the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. Furthermore, crucifixion was seen as (literally) the most shameful manner of execution in the Roman Empire.[103] It is not something any Christian would want to invent. In fact, St. Paul states that Jesus’ lowly end was an obstacle to conversion for many non-Christians. As Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:23):

[W]e preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

The Alexamenos graffito, our earliest known pictorial representation of Jesus’ crucifixion (early 3rd century graffiti), attests to the embarrassing nature of Jesus’ execution as well.[104] The drawing portrays a crucified man with a donkey’s head to the right of the image and a young man to the left of the image. Underneath the crucified figure is a Greek inscription that when translated into English says: “Alexamenos worships [his] god”. With this graffiti, an unknown pagan artist mocked a Christian named Alexamenos for believing in a god who was crucified.

Next up, we will discuss the critical support for the resurrection narratives. (Hold your thought on what Christian and non-Christian scholars affirm about the resurrection appearances! We will get to that towards the end of this section).

In the Gospels, a group of Jesus’ female followers is said to have visited Jesus’ tomb, discovered it empty, and witnessed Jesus’ first post-mortem appearance. That the first witnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection were women (Mk 16:1; Matt 28:8-10) and not men bespeaks authenticity.[105] Women were viewed in a low light in antiquity. In fact, in ancient Jewish culture, the testimony of women was considered unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law. For this reason, if the narratives were invented, it is very difficult to see why women were made the first witnesses — to Christianity’s biggest claim and foundational event no less — the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Jewish scholar Adela Yarbo Collins notes:

The status of women in the ancient world was such that a story fabricated as proof or apology would not be based on the testimony of women.[106]  

Another notable point is that although the women are recognized as the first witnesses in the Gospels, they are left out of the statement of eyewitnesses in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:1-7). This may very well be because of the low status of women in antiquity. Mentioning them as witnesses, especially as first in order, would not have been persuasive to ancient audiences. As Pope Benedict XVI comments in his Jesus of Nazareth series:

In the confessional tradition [(1 Cor 15:1-7)] only men are named as witnesses, whereas in the narrative tradition [(the Gospels)] women play a key role, indeed they take precedence over the men. This may be linked to the fact that in the Jewish tradition only men could be admitted as witnesses in court — the testimony of women was considered unreliable. So the “official” tradition, which is, so to speak, addressing the court of Israel and the court of the world, has to observe this norm if it is to prevail in what we might in what we might describe as Jesus’ ongoing trial.[107]

With all that said, let us shift our focus from the women as first witnesses and tackle the resurrection appearances generally.

The evidence for the resurrection experiences of the disciples is so strong that virtually all contemporary scholars, including skeptical scholars, affirm that Jesus’ disciples had experiences that caused them to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. As scholar Michael Licona notes:

[S]ubsequent to Jesus’ execution, a number of his followers had experiences … that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner. This conclusion is granted by a nearly unanimous consensus of modern scholars and may therefore be added to our “historical bedrock”.[108]

How these “experiences” are to be interpreted (i.e. actual appearances of a risen Jesus or some variant of the hallucination theory) is where the disagreement comes in. Jesus’ resurrection appearances are attested not only in the Gospels and Acts but also in Paul’s letters. The most valuable tradition among these is 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, which is widely agreed by scholars to date within 5 years of the death of Jesus and originate from the Jerusalem church:[109]

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [(Peter)], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles.

After conveying this tradition, Paul, a former persecutor of the Church, concludes by testifying about Jesus’ appearance to him (1 Cor 15:8):

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

In light of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, atheist scholar Mark Crossley affirms:

The resurrection appearances are some of the hardest, best evidence we have.[110]

Combining the evidence for the post-mortem appearances with the strong evidence for the willingness of the disciples to endanger themselves by preaching a risen Christ, historians are on firm ground in saying that the disciples were genuine in their belief that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them.

2.4. Archaeology

The Gospels enjoy support from archaeology as well. In modern times, many discoveries have been made that confirm or give credence to the New Testament narrative.

In 1990, several ancient ossuaries were discovered in a burial cave in Jerusalem. One of these belonged to a “Joseph, son of Caiaphas”.[111] This Caiaphas has been identified as the high priest of Israel who presided over the trial of Jesus. In 2008, another ossuary, called the “Miriam Ossuary”, was discovered. This find mentions Caiaphas as well saying “Miriam daughter of yeshua son of Caiaphas, priest of Ma’azya from Beit Imri”.[112]

In 1962, an archaeologist working on Israel’s coast discovered an inscription that confirmed the existence of Pontius Pilate.[113] This discovery, now known as the “Pilate Inscription”, mentions Tiberius, the Roman emperor during Jesus’ time, and Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea — “Tiberieum/[Pon]tius Pilatus/ [Praef]ectus Iuda[eae]”.

In the past, there was only evidence of Nazareth being inhabited before and after the first century.[114] The hyper skepticism of some scholars led them to doubt the inhabitation of Nazareth during Jesus’ time (despite the fact that continuity of inhabitation between the two periods should have been a likely conclusion). In 2006, a first century stone house with underground cisterns and grain silos was discovered in Nazareth, confirming that the town was inhabited during Jesus’ lifetime. (This is the problem with skeptical arguments or conclusions from silence!).

Some scholars used to doubt the veracity of the Gospels regarding the existence of synagogues in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. This put into doubt one key feature of Jesus’ ministry — his preaching in synagogues across Galilee. The reason for these doubts was that, in the past, there was no archaeological evidence of synagogues in Palestine before 70 AD. In light of this, some skeptical scholars presumed that the Gospel authors retrojected a reality in their time to Jesus’ ministry. This all changed in 2009 when archaeologists uncovered the ruins of a large and well-preserved first century synagogue complex in Magdala (the village of Mary Magdalene).[115] This synagogue was determined to be in use between 50 BC and 67 AD. Based on the size of the synagogue, its location in Magdala, and information from the Gospels, archaeologists have come to the conclusion that Jesus “almost certainly” preached here. Since this discovery, nine more first century synagogues have been discovered in Palestine, showing once again why absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.[116]

One of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries related to the New Testament is St. Peter’s house.[117] In the late 1960s, archaeologists discovered a series of insula or attached stone houses in Capernaum. Built on top of one of these structures was an ancient 5th century Byzantine church. The stone house beneath the church dates back to the first century BC. Scratched on the walls of one of its rooms, in the plaster, are Christian prayers in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac. Archaeologists came to the conclusion that the structure was a ”house church” from the first century and very likely the home of St. Peter, who lived in Capernaum. This also makes it the site of one healing account in the Gospels, the healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law (Mk 1:29-31). 

Another major discovery is the pool of Bethesda, which is mentioned in John 5:2. The pool was accidentally discovered in the 19th century when workers sought to restore the medieval church of St. Anne.[118] Underneath the courtyard of the church, ruins of a large and very deep pool were discovered. These ruins precisely match John’s description of the pool of Bethesda — bounded on the sides with four colonnades and spanned across the middle by a fifth. Prior to the discovery, some scholars doubted the existence of the pool due to lack of evidence as well as its unusual design. As it turns out, however, such a pool existed. Its unique design is likely the reason why it was described by the author of John’s gospel in the first place. This site is also the location of another one of Jesus’ healings (Jhn 5:1-14)

Finally, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre may very well be the site of Jesus’ tomb. There are several reasons supporting the authenticity of the site.[119]

One, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands on an ancient first century Jewish cemetery, with rock-cut tombs matching the description of Jesus’ tomb in the Gospels.[120]

Two, the history of the identification of the site shows that it was known as Jesus’ tomb as early as the first half of the second century. Helena, the mother of Constantine, went to Jerusalem to identify the Holy Places in 326-328 AD. When she asked the locals where the site of Jesus’ tomb was, she was pointed to a pagan temple that was erected by Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 AD), who desecrated many Jewish holy sites by building pagan temples on top of them. If Jesus was truly buried on the site of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then Hadrian’s action of disrespect ended up serving as a marker of identification for future generations.

Three, the location of the site is unlikely to be invented. This strengthens its credibility. Christian tradition is unanimous that Jesus was buried outside Jerusalem’s walls (Heb 13:12; Jn 19:41). Jewish custom made it common knowledge that burials would occur outside the city’s walls as well. No one would invent a site inside. Today, the site of the Holy Sepulchre is located inside Jerusalem’s walls, not outside, but Agrippa I expanded the walls of Jerusalem to include the area of the Holy Sepulchre sometime between 41 and 44 AD. In other words, the site of the Holy Sepulchre during Jesus’ time was located outside Jerusalem’s walls but 11-14 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the location became inside the city’s walls due to Agrippa I’s wall expansion.

Ultimately, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rightly located inside Jerusalem’s walls during Jesus’ time. The site would also be an unlikely choice for later Christians who would want to invent a location for Jesus’ tomb, since during their time, the site would be located inside Jerusalem’s walls and not outside. We may very well have a site that was identified as Jesus’ tomb within 14 years of his death, during a time in which his disciples “led the growing church in Jerusalem, within walking distance away”.[121]

On the probability of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre being the site of Jesus’ tomb, archaeologist John McRay states:

The archaeological and early literary evidence argues strongly for those who associate [Jesus’ tomb] with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.[122]

Likewise, archaeologist Jerome Murphy-O’Connor of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem comments the following in his “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (2008):

Is this the place where Christ … was buried? Very probably, yes.[123]

Dan Bahat, a Jerusalem archaeologist, comments on the probability of the site being authentic:

We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.[124]

Although the evidence in favor of the site is not decisive, it is significant and definitely worthy of being taken seriously.

2.5. Comparison with Apocryphal Gospels

We can close our discussion on the reliability of the Gospels by comparing them with the later apocryphal gospels (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas, Judas, Peter, etc). These texts were written after the first century AD and originated from heterodox gnostic communities outside the early Church. The apocryphal gospels provide a great comparison to the canonical Gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

When it comes to geographical information, the apocryphal gospels hardly mention any place names. The gospel of Thomas, one of the earliest apocryphal gospels (mid-second century) and the most popular one, mentions Judea, the world” and names no other location.[125] Likewise, the gospel of Judas mentions Judea and “the world” only.[126] The gospel of Truth names no locations.[127] The gospel of Philip names four locations — Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Jordan River, and “the world”.[128] This, however, is not impressive, considering that Jerusalem was a known religious capital, and Nazareth, though an obscure town and not known outside Palestine in Jesus’ day, was already famous because of Jesus by the time the gospel of Philip was written.[129] Furthermore, as a point of comparison, the gospel of John names more local bodies of water (five) than the gospel of Philip mentions all types of place names (three, excluding “the world”) — think about that!

Another characteristic of the apocryphal gospels is that when they do give geographical descriptions, they “often” make mistakes.[130] The Sophia of Jesus Christ locates the Mount of Olives “in Galilee” despite it being located beside Jerusalem.[131] The Infancy Gospel of Thomas errs in describing the town of Nazareth as being located “in the region of Bethlehem”.[132] Nazareth is not located anywhere near Bethlehem. Nazareth is located in the region of Galilee to the north while Bethlehem is located in the region of Judea to the south. The gospel of Barnabas describes Jesus as “sailing to his city of Nazareth”.[133] Nazareth is not a city and it is also located inland, making it impossible to “sail to”.  The gospel of Philip gives a detailed discussion on temples in Jerusalem and mentions the directions these buildings faced. Scholar Hans Martin Schenke described this discussion as displaying “irritatingly unrealistic topography”.[134]

The apocryphal gospels also do a poor job of reflecting Jesus’ environment containing limited Palestinian-Jewish traits. As Keener notes, the apocryphal gospels “reflect the environment of their authors far better than the environment in which the story is set”.[135] In the following discussion, we will focus on our earliest apocryphal texts (those that can be dated to the second century), such as the gospel of Thomas and the gospel of Peter, in order to see the best that the apocryphal tradition can offer.

When it comes to Palestinian traits, the apocryphal gospels hardly reflect any. They display, as Keener put it, “second-century tendencies far removed from a Palestinian tradition”.[136] The gospel of Thomas’ ending image of a woman being saved by becoming male “fits Philo’s Platonic Alexandrian milieu far better than that of Jesus”.[137] In the gospel of Peter, Jewish priests wait in a burial plot. This makes no sense in Jesus’ original environment.[138]

As for the quality of Jewishness, Williams notes that the apocryphal gospels look “decidedly less Jewish than the canonical Gospels.[139] The gospel of Thomas, for example, reflects “little Jewish background” while the Gospel of Peter is bluntly described as “so far removed from any knowledge of early Judaism”.[140]

In the end, the apocryphal gospels are a great comparison to the canonical gospels. Unlike the canonical Gospels, the apocryphal gospels provide limited geographical detail, and when they do give geographical descriptions, they often make mistakes. Unlike the canonical Gospels, the apocryphal gospels hardly reflect Palestinian-Jewish color and instead, much better reflect the second century environment of their authors.

The apocryphal gospels provide us with another line of evidence for the reliability of the canonical Gospels. The differences between the two are stark — as clear as day and night. As Williams comments:

These later Gospels … provide us with an excellent control sample. They show that sometimes people wrote about Jesus without close knowledge of what he did. The fact that the four Gospels, both as a group and individually, contrast with these other Gospels illustrates the qualitative difference between these sources.[141]

3. Acts of the Apostles

Having finished our discussion on the Gospels, we can now move on to the book of Acts.

We have strong reasons to view Acts as a reliable history of the early Church. A great amount of information in Acts has been corroborated, even in matters of small detail. Luke’s accounts of Paul’s missionary journeys are both detailed and coherent, and as Keener notes, the “we” sections tend to be “among Luke’s most detailed material”.[142] This is exactly what we would expect if Luke was a traveling companion of Paul and an eyewitness to the “we” sections in Acts.

When it comes to Paul’s first missionary journey, Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas traveled to Cyprus, Barnabas’ homeland. Traveling from east coast to west coast, as they would have to do after coming from Seleucia, Luke mentions their significant stops at Salamis and Paphos. These were the two biggest cities of Cyprus on each of those respective coasts.[144]

The existence of the family of Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7), a proconsul in Paphos who becomes a Christian, has been impressively confirmed by two gravestones and one inscription.[145] Luke mentions that one of Paulus’ attendants was a sorcerer. This fits with the historical data. As scholar James Dunn notes:

[Roman sources] tell us of more than one high-born Roman who was attracted by the “superstitions” stemming from the East. And several Roman rulers had magicians and soothsayers among their personal staff.[146]

Luke tells us that this sorcerer was also Jewish (Acts 13:6), making this a case of religious syncretism. This fits with other information Luke provides about this individual — the attendant was known by two names, “Bar-Jesus” and “Elymas” (Acts 13:7-8). Bar-Jesus is a Jewish name and Elymas is a Greek name.

Paul and others head to the south-central coast of Turkey. As scholar Craig Blomberg comments on Luke’s description of Paul’s travels in this area:

All the places can be identified, and all of Luke’s geography proves accurate.[147]

Paul’s next stop after Paphos was Pisidian Antioch. Impressively, we have inscriptional evidence that members of Sergius Paulus’ extended family lived there, suggesting that perhaps, Paulus requested Paul to proclaim the good news to his relatives after becoming Christian himself.[148]

Luke tells us that Paul and company visited the local synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. In the early 20th century, the foundations of a first century building underneath a fourth century Byzantine church in Pisidian Antioch was uncovered. According to archaeologists, this may very well be the synagogue that Paul and his companions visited.[149]

In Acts 14:1-23, Paul and Barnabas visit Lystra and Derbe. For the longest time, scholars did not know where these ancient cities were located. Some even doubted their existence altogether. Inscriptions for both cities were discovered in the late 19th century and mid 20th century respectively.[150] Luke rightly identifies both cities as part of the ancient territory of Lycaonia. He is also aware that a separate indigenous Lycaonian language is spoken in these cities. Luke correctly identifies worship to Zeus and Hermes in Lystra. An ancient altar and inscription to both Zeus and Hermes were discovered just outside the ancient city.[151]

Retracing their steps to the Mediterranean sea, Paul and Barnabas preach in Perga, a major port city in Pamphylia. Afterward, they travel to nearby Attalia and sail back to Syrian Antioch. As Blomberg comments, landing at Perga when coming from Cyprus and traveling to Attalia to sail for Syria “corresponds to the most common routes of the day”.[152]

Luke recounts Paul’s journey back to Jerusalem and his geography is on-point. From Syrian Antioch, Phoenicia is farther south and Samaria even further, on the way to Jerusalem in Judea.

At the beginning of Acts’ fifth section (now in Paul’s second missionary journey), Luke displays very accurate and detailed knowledge of Roman provincial organization.[153] Luke shows knowledge that there was one region jointly encompassing both Phrygia and Galatia (16:6; cf. 18:23). This is precisely the arrangement Rome created in 25 BC when it reorganized its empire into ten provinces — a reorganization that often blurred historic territorial divisions along ethnic lines.

Luke continues to recount Paul’s journeys. His geography continues to be accurate and his travel routes are coherent. As Blomberg comments:

The territories of Asia (minor), Mysia, Bithynia and Macedonia, and the city of Troas, are all real places, listed in a way that makes sense of Paul’s attempted and actual travels. The same is true of his itinerary in Greece — from the island of Samothrace to the cities of Neapolis (16:11), Philippi (16:12), Amphipolis, Apollonia, Thessalonica (17:1), Berea (17:10), Athens (17:16), and Corinth (18:1). Paul is visiting the major towns on the eastern side of the peninsula in sequence as he progresses from north to south.[154]

Luke correctly describes Philippi as a Roman colony and he impressively identifies a small river near a gate to the west of the city, the Gangites.[155] Luke tells us of a woman named Lydia (Acts 16:14), a dealer of purple cloth from Thyatira who converts to Christianity and urges Paul and his companions to stay at her house in Philippi. This fits with the historical evidence. As scholar Eckhard Schnabel notes:

A Latin inscription from Philippi refers to dealers in purple, an inscription from Thessalonica documents a guild of purple dyers, and an inscription from Philippi mentions purple dyers from Thyatira.[156]

The use and abuse of fortune-tellers in Greco-Roman antiquity (Acts 16:16-18) is just as well-attested, and the description of being stripped, beaten with rods, and put into foot stocks, is in line with documented experiences of the day (Acts 16:22-24).[157]

Paul’s mention of an altar to an unknown god at Athens (Acts 17:23) is corroborated by other ancient writers and various inscriptional evidence — such altars did exist at Athens.[158] As Luke accurately notes, there were many Epicureans and Stoics in the city. Paul’s recorded sermon in Athens is both brilliant and contextualized for his audience, just as one would expect from a first-rate intellectual like Paul. As Blomberg comments on this sermon of Paul:

[Paul’s sermon beautifully plays] the views of each group against each other in service of Christian truth. The Cretan Epimenides and the Cilician Stoic Aratus are quoted in verses 27-28 to support God’s immanence, but only after his transcendance, in agreement with the Epicureans, was well established (vv. 24-26).[159]

Paul being questioned by the Athean city council, the Areopagus, makes sense. It was their job to serve as custodian of the accepted gods and goddesses who could be legally worshipped in the city.

Luke breezes through Paul’s voyage to Israel and return to Syrian Antioch. As usual, he gets the details right. As Blomberg notes:

[Luke] knows it was natural to sail directly across the Aegean Sea and dock at Ephesus (v. 19) before making the much longer journey to the eastern Mediterranean (v. 18). He knows Caesarea was a major port city on the coast of Israel (v. 22a) and that one goes “up” to Jerusalem because of its elevation and “down” to Antioch in Syria (v. 22b) at a lower altitude, even though it was north of Jerusalem.[160]

On Paul’s third missionary journey, a major stop for him was Ephesus. Luke, again, displays accurate knowledge of the place. As Keener notes:

Luke also displays accurate information about Ephesus (Acts 19:1-41): Ephesians used a unique title for Artemis, sometimes defended her cult, were sensitive at precisely this time concerning the economics of Artemis worship, could have unscheduled meetings in the theater near the crowded market, and countless other details.[161] 

As for Paul’s travels after Ephesus, Blomberg comments:

Much of Paul’s subsequent journeying is narrated almost like a travel itinerary, with only sporadic additional information about what happened at the various locations. All of the sites were real places — Troas (20:5), Assos (v. 13), Mitylene (v. 14), Chios, Samos and Miletos (v. 15) … The travel itinerary continues in chapter 21, with every city in the right order forming a logical sequence — Kos, Rhodes, and Patara (v. 1), passing by Cyprus en route to Tyre in Syrophoenica (vv. 2-3). Then would come Ptolemais (v. 7) and Caesara (b. 16), prior to Jerusalem (v. 17).[162] 

Impressively, even the account of Paul’s and Luke’s trip from Caesarea to Rome, in which they both experienced a shipwreck, shows great accuracy and detail. As Keener notes:

Although further examples could be multiplied, I conclude this section with Luke’s “we” narrative about the sea voyage (Acts 27:1-28:15). Even minor details of the account match what we know of weather conditions and the sailors’ actions. Already in the nineteenth century, a mariner [(James Smith and his work, “The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul”)] showed how the seasonal storm conditions, direction and timing of the ship’s drift, and other details precisely fit Mediterranean conditions. More recent meteorological studies offer further confirmation. Luke or his source was clearly aboard a ship in these conditions. Skeptics suggest that perhaps Luke simply added the mentions of Paul to the existing narrative, but if Luke describes the conditions accurately, is it not simpler to assume that he was also present with Paul, as he claims?.[163]

Likewise, Blomberg comments:

There is not an unrealistic detail in this entire account. The mid-nineteenth-century commentator, James Smith, wrote a classic work … In meticulous detail he examined every aspect of ancient seafaring relevant to Paul’s experiences in these chapters, concluding that the author of Acts must have either accompanied Paul, as is implied by the “we”-narrative, or was relying on another person’s eyewitness account of the events. Every element of the route, the danger yet desire to travel late in the fall while still before winter, the outfitting of the vessel, the measures taken to survive during the storm, the hurricane-force wind blowing from the northeast, soundings as land became closer, and the danger of running aground at too great a speed all correspond perfectly to what we know of the practices and technology of the day.

The completion of the trip to Rome on a new boat after winter had ended likewise fits what we know of Paul’s era. Castor and Pollux were the twin gods of seafaring, so they formed a natural figure head for a ship (28:11). Syracuse, Rhegium, Puteoli, and Three Taverns were towns on the Appian Way as travelers made their way northward on the Italian Peninsula toward Rome (vv. 12-15).

The ending of Acts with Paul under house arrest in Rome fits what we know of the practice during the period.[165] House arrest, with a prisoner lightly chained to a series of rotating guards, was common practice for individuals not considered to be dangerous (v. 16). As Luke accurately notes, the prisoner had to pay for his own rent and accommodation (v. 30) — adding insult to injury!

Another notable point about Acts is Luke’s accuracy when it comes to local rulers and titles of local officials.

Luke identifies several local rulers in Acts such as Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus, and Galio. The most impressive of these is his identification of Galio, the proconsul of Achaia in Greece. A discovery of an inscription at Delphi confirmed that Gallio was indeed the proconsul of Achaia and that his term only lasted less than a year (Gallio also did not finish his term) — encompassing 51-52 AD. As Blomberg comments: “The reference to Galio in verse 12 forms a major synchronism with extra-biblical history”.[166] Although not a local ruler, Luke correctly identifies the Jewish high priest at the time of Acts 23:2, Ananias.[167]

In addition to identifying several local rulers, Luke gives accurate information about these individuals. Agrippa I, for example, did die of a gastrointestinal disorder as he was giving a public address to a crowd that revered him. Agrippa II took in his sister, Bernice, to live with him precisely during the time of Acts 25:13.[168] Before and after the time of Acts, Bernice did not stay with Agrippa II for she was and would be married. Felix was married three times in his life but Drusilla was his wife at exactly the time of Acts 24:24.[169]

Overall, Luke’s depiction of local rulers comports well with what we know of these figures from other sources. Luke’s depiction of political rulers in Judea accords well with what we know of these individuals from Josephus (who wrote later than Acts!). As Keener notes:

Often in Acts, and especially once the narrative streches beyond Judea, we have sources available that confirm Luke’s reports about persons or events … the depictions of Herod Agrippa I, Agrippa II, Felix, and Festus (Acts 12:1-23; 23:24-26:32) resemble what we know of these figures from Josephus.[170]

Likewise, Luke’s depiction of Gallio accords well with what we know of him from other sources.[171]

Luke gets the titles of local officials correct too. City officials in Thessalonica, for example, are rightly called “politarchs” (Acts 17:8). This term was unattested in history until an inscription on the city’s Vardar Gate was discovered. Likewise, the office of “city clerk” (Acts 19:35) did exist at Ephesus. Luke mentions a good number of terms used for local officials in the many places his narratives span — all of them are accurate. As Keener notes:

Even though no handbook for local titles of officials existed … Luke always gets correct the titles for officials in different locals.[172]

In the end, a great amount of information in Acts has been corroborated, even in matters of small detail. As Blomberg puts it, in Acts:

[O]ne can trace in detail … [Paul’s] travels, identify every location, and understand something from the local culture or Paul’s past experience that explains his movements, behavior, and forms of public address. And the historical existence of even minor characters and details can often be confirmed from extra biblical sources.[173]

Likewise, Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White comments on Acts saying:

The confirmation of historicity is overwhelming … any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.[174] 

Ultimately, there is strong evidence for the historical reliability of Acts. Since Luke and Acts were written by the same author, this evidence also reflects well on the gospel of Luke.

I will close this section with a quote from Sir William Mitchell Ramsay, a leading 20th century New Testament scholar and distinguished archaeologist. Ramsay was educated in the liberal Tübingen school of thought, which viewed the New Testament texts with skepticism. Later in life, Ramsay traveled to Asia Minor to study the land extensively. As he did, however, his skepticism of Acts collapsed and he reversed his opinion on the text and its author. As Ramsay remarks:

Further study showed that the book [Acts] could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement  … Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense.[175]

St. Paul’s Areopagus sermon at Athens. Painting by Raphael.

4. Conclusion

In closing, we have strong reason to trust the Gospels and Acts as historical sources about Jesus and the early Church.

In part one, we discussed how multiple factors (e.g. genre, time of writing, authorship, the traditioning community they arose from, etc) point to the conclusion that the Gospels are generally reliable biographies of Jesus. We have very good reason to believe that a historical core lies behind the average account in the Gospels. Unless there is good reason to believe otherwise, the basic attitude towards events in the Gospels should be one of trust, since full-length early empire biographies about recent figures normally recounted genuine historical information. 

We also discussed how the evidence points to Acts being a generally reliable history of the early Church. There is good reason to believe that Acts was written by Luke — a traveling companion of Paul, an eyewitness to the “we” sections in Acts, and a member of the Christian Church at an early date (the 50s AD, possibly earlier). These are great credentials to write a work like Acts.

The conclusions of part one summarized above are strengthened by the evidence presented in part two. 

Looking at the texts, the Gospels possess qualities we would expect if they were based on eyewitness knowledge of Jesus’ life. The Gospels display substantial and accurate knowledge of Palestinian geography as well as strong local color. Furthermore, critical analysis indicates that a substantial portion of Jesus’ life and teachings are very likely historical. Especially striking is the presence of many embarrassing details in the narrative. These testify to the existence of a significant conservative impulse within the early Church.[176] Evidence from archaeology and a comparison with the later apocryphal Gospels provide further evidence for the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Likewise, Acts possesses qualities we would expect if it was based on eyewitness knowledge of events in the early Church. A great amount of information in Acts has been corroborated, even in matters of small detail. The simplest and most logical conclusion is that Luke was indeed a traveling companion of Paul and an eyewitness to the “we” sections in Acts. The evidence for the reliability of Acts also reflects well on the gospel of Luke, which was written by the same author.

Ultimately, there is strong evidence for the general reliability of the Gospels and Acts. We have very good reasons for trusting these texts as historical sources about Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian Church. 


  1. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 739-808
  2. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 183
  3. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 808
  4. Ibid, loc. 808.
  5. Ibid, loc. 968
  6. Ibid, loc. 808.
  7. FOCLOnline. Youtube. Can We Trust the Gospels? – Peter Williams. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBLyatge8BM
  8. Ibid, loc. 905
  9. FOCLOnline. Youtube. Can We Trust the Gospels? – Peter Williams. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBLyatge8BM
  10. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 894
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid, loc. 955
  13. Ibid, loc. 974
  14. Ibid
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid, loc. 1249. Skeptics will point to a number of geographical errors (less than a handful) in Mark to argue against his reliability as a source. Two points to note here.

    One, geographical errors were made by other ancient historical writers as well. The Jewish historian Josephus was very familiar with Galilean geography. He was the leader of Jewish forces in Galilee during the Jewish-Roman war. Despite this, Josephus made a number of Galilean geographical errors in his works. Geography was not easy.

    Despite being an eyewitness, Josephus made mistakes himself. This does not mean that Josephus’ work is unreliable. In fact, scholars view Josephus as a generally reliable historical source. In the same way, if Mark made a number of geographical errors in his work, it would not count against his general reliability. More evidence needs to be marshaled in order to cast doubt on a source.

    Two, there are genuinely good explanations offered for these possible geographical errors in Mark. Looking at the explanations offered, I certainly think not all of them are errors. Check out Faithful Philosophy’s article, Thoughts on Mark’s Supposed Geographical Errors, for more information. If the explanations offered by scholars are correct, then these geographical errors become evidence for Mark’s geographical accuracy as well! Like a seat in the House of Representatives “shifting” from party A to party B if an incumbent congressman from party A is dethroned by the challenger from party B.
  19. Gathercole, The Journeys of Jesus and Jewish Geography. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rT1o2mdxu44 
  20. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels, loc. 993
  21. Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, pg. 101.
  22.  Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1296
  23.  Margaret H Williams, “Palestinian Jewish Personal Names in Acts,” in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, vol. 4, Palestinian Setting, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 79-113; Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, pt. 1 Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE.
  24. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pgs. 67-92
  25. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 489.
  26. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 894-955
  27. Ibid, loc. 894
  28. Ibid, loc. 955
  29. Ibid, loc. 955
  30. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 182
  31. Ibid, pg. 183
  32. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1333
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 20
  36. Ibid, pgs. 188 and 194
  37. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 132
  38. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 126
  39. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1333
  40. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 197
  41. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1004
  42. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 100
  43. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 489
  44. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 493 and Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 118
  45. Pitre, The Case for Jesus, pgs. 104-113
  46. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 188
  47. Keener, Assumptions in Historical-Jesus Research: Using Ancient Biographies and Disciples’ Traditioning as a Control
  48. Ibid.
  49. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 215
  50. Ibid, pg. 270
  51. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 203
  52. Ibid, pg. 217
  53. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 233
  54. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 220
  55. Ibid, pg. 241
  56. Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  57. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 77
  58. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 176
  59. Ibid, pg. 182
  60. Ibid.
  61. Ibid, pg. 182
  62. Ibid, pg. 183
  63. Ibid.
  64. Ibid, pg. 184
  65. Ibid, pg. 210-211
  66. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 6
  67. Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  68. As scholar John Granger Cook notes: “There is almost universal scholarly consensus that 1 Cor 15:3-5 contains a carefully preserved tradition pre-dating Paul’s apostolic activity and received by him within two to five years of the founding events” (The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3–5).
  69. As noted by leading scholar Larry Hurtado: “It is widely accepted, however, that the tradition Paul recites in 15:1-7 must go back to the Jerusalem Church” (Lord Jesus Christ, pg.  168).
  70. Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  71. Although the passage in Josephus was tampered by a later Christian scribe, scholars widely agree (even skeptical scholars) that the mention of Jesus’ miracle working is authentic to Josephus. Below is the scholarly reconstruction of what Josephus actually said:

    “At this time [the rule of Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea] there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of paradoxical deeds, a teacher who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.

    Scholars believe they can reconstruct what Josephus said with good confidence because the portions of interpolation are obvious and clumsy, and a Christian interpolator would not have used the word “paradoxical” to describe Jesus’ miracles (“Paradoxōn” is only used once in the New Testament, in Lk 5:26. It is also a fairly neutral term) but “signs” or “wonders”. Josephus also uses the word paradoxōn in another work when describing the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. Other portions of the agreed-upon authentic core also have very good reasons for being legitimate. For example, the beginning “Now about this time …” is used by Josephus as a way of introducing a new topic many times in his work. There are also no early Christian parallels that refer to Jesus merely as “a wise man”, but this is a term used by Josephus several times, such as for Solomon and Daniel. The use of the word φῦλον (“phylon” – “race, tribe”) is also not used by Christians about themselves in any works of the time, but Josephus uses it elsewhere when he talks about nations or other distinct groups. All of the above elements mentioned are distinctively Josephean.
  72. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 241
  73. Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  74. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 241
  75. Twelftree, The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206
  76. Chilton and Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, pgs. 11-12
  77. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 170
  78. Ibid.
  79. Ibid, pg. 211
  80. Ibid, pg. 221
  81. Ibid, pg. 211-212 and 221
  82. Ibid, pg. 211
  83.  Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 215-216
  84. Ibid, pg. 216
  85. Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  86. Ibid
  87. Meier, A Marginal Jew Volume Two, pgs. 330-331 and 336 
  88. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 188
  89. Ibid, pg. 189
  90. Ibid, pg. 189
  91. Ibid, pg. 194
  92. Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  93. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 198
  94. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pgs. 247-248
  95. Ibid, pg. 248
  96. Ibid.
  97. See also Brant Pitre’s excellent Jesus and the Last Supper (2017)
  98. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 299
  99. In other parts of the Gospel tradition, the disciples are portrayed as having difficulty understanding (Mk 9:9-11), cowardly (Jhn 20:19), lacking in faith (Mk 4:40; Matt 14:30-32) and being worldy in thinking (Mk 8:32-33; Mk 10:35-37).
  100. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 128
  101. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 322
  102. Ibid, pg. 323.
  103. Holland, T. Tom Holland & AC Grayling — History: Did Christianity give us our human values? Retrieved from https://youtu.be/7eSyz3BaVK8?t=407
  104. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, pg. 262
  105. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 331 and Homlen and Porter (editors), James Charlesworth in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus
  106.  Adela Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel, pg.  127
  107. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection
  108.  Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 372
  109. As noted by leading critical scholar Dale Allison:

    “We can also be confident, given that Paul knew Peter and James, that 1 Cor. 15:3-8 is not folklore; and ‘since Paul…visited Peter and the Christian community in Jerusalem about five to six years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the tradition which he reports…can, at least, not contradict what he heard then’.” (The Resurrection of Jesus, pg. 40)

    Scholar John Granger Cook comments regarding the creed, which at minimum, extends as far as 1 Cor 15:3-5:

    “There is almost universal scholarly consensus that 1 Cor 15:3-5 contains a carefully preserved tradition pre-dating Paul’s apostolic activity and received by him within two to five years of the founding events” (The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3–5).

    Likewise, scholar David C. Sim notes on the tradition in 1 Cor 15:6-7 being equally early as the creed:

    “Many of them have argued that the original creedal formula extended from vv. 3-5a (“Christ died for our sins” to “he appeared to Cephas”) or from vv. 3-5b (which would include the appearance to the twelve). While there can be little doubt that in the list of later appearances Paul has added material, it is equally clear that the references to the appearances to the 500, James and all the apostles also stem from very early tradition. Whether this material was joined to the early creedal formula in vv. 3-5 or whether it was originally independent and brought together by Paul, the important point is that in either case Paul in 15:3-7 is citing very early material from the church in Jerusalem” (“The Family of Jesus and the Disciples of Jesus in Paul and Mark: Taking Sides in the Early Church’s Factional Dispute,” in Paul and Mark, pg. 76).

    Leading scholar Larry Hurtado notes regarding the origin of 1 Cor 15:3-7:

    “It is widely accepted, however, that the tradition Paul recites in 15:1-7 must go back to the Jerusalem Church” (Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 168).
  110. Unbelievable? Do the minimal facts support the resurrection? Gary Habermas & James Crossley. Retrieved from: https://unbelievable.podbean.com/e/new-testament-listener-qa-gary-habermas-james-crossley/
  111. Biblical Archaeology Review 18:5, September/October 1992. Retrieved from: https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/18/5/7
  112. Zissu and Goren, Israel Exploration Journal Vol. 61, No. 1 (2011), pp. 74-95 (22 pages). The Ossuary of ‘Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priests [of] Maʿaziah from Beth ʾImri’. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23214223?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  113.  Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, pgs. 110-111
  114.  Ibid, pgs. 96-100
  115. Ibid, pgs. 103-104 
  116. Faithful Philosophy. Bible and History. Retrieved from: https://faithfulphilosophy.wordpress.com/bible-and-history/
  117. Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, pgs. 107-109
  118. Craig, Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology,
  119. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pgs. 327-328
  120. Romey, Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre
  121. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 328
  122. McRay, Archaelogy and the New Testament, pg. 216
  123. Murphy-O’Conner, The Holy Land; An Oxford Archaeologist, pgs. 49-57
  124. Romey, Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre
  125. Gathercole, The Journeys of Jesus and Jewish Geography. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rT1o2mdxu44
  126. Ibid.
  127. Ibid.
  128. Ibid.
  129. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1030.
  130. Gathercole, The Journeys of Jesus and Jewish Geography. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rT1o2mdxu44
  131. Ibid.
  132. Ibid.
  133. Ibid.
  134. Ibid.
  135. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1315 and Keener, the Historical Jesus, pg. 51
  136. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 49
  137. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 492
  138. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 492
  139. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1270-1315
  140. Ibid.
  141. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels, loc. 1038.
  142. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 228
  143. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, pgs. 186–89.
  144. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 271-272.
  145. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, pg. 421
  146. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 272
  147. Ibid, pg. 271
  148. Ibid, pg. 272
  149. Ibid. pg. 271
  150. Ibid, pg. 273
  151. Ibid.
  152. Ibid, pg. 274-275
  153. Ibid, pg. 278
  154. Ibid.
  155. Apologetics Academy, The Reliability of Acts: A Conversation with Dr. Tim McGrew. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Hcj1rxM_ng
  156. Ibid, pg. 279
  157. Ibid.
  158. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 282
  159. Ibid, pg. 283
  160. Ibid, pg. 285
  161. Keener in Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 9180.
  162. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 287
  163. Keener in Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 9180.
  164. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pgs. 291-292
  165. Ibid, pg. 292
  166. Ibid, pg. 284
  167. Keener, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 9242
  168. Keener in Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 9180.
  169. Ibid.
  170. Ibid.
  171. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 274
  172. Keener in Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 9086-9180.
  173. Ibid, pg. 275
  174. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pg. 189
  175. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915, pgs. 85 and 89
  176. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, pg. 170

The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Part 1 of 2)

Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10:46-52)

1. Introduction

If anyone wants to learn more about Jesus and the early Church, they open up the New Testament — but how reliable is it? Does it accurately recount Jesus’ life and teachings, as well as the history of the early Church?

In this two-part series, we will look into the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. 

Unlike other books of the New Testament (e.g. Paul’s letters, the other pastoral epistles, and the book of Revelation), the Gospels and Acts are historiographic writings. The Gospels are ancient biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, and biography, as a literary genre, is a subtype of historiography. On the other hand, Acts is a work of ancient historiography about the early Church. Since the Gospels and Acts are historiographic writings, this series will focus on them.

In part one of this series, we will look into what we should expect from the Gospels and Acts as historical sources based on multiple factors — their genre, dating, authorship, the impact of disciples, the capabilities and frailties of memory, oral tradition, etc. These factors will affect how we view the Gospels and Acts as historical sources, as they have implications on historical reliability. For part one of this series, I draw extensively from Craig Keener’s Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels (2019). Keener is one of the best New Testament scholars in the world today. He has developed a reputation as a thorough and meticulous researcher and has written leading commentaries on Acts and John.

In part two of this series, we will cover the question of historical reliability by looking into the contents of the Gospels and Acts. We will look into how well the authors of the Gospels and Acts knew local geography, the extent to which their writings reflect local color, and other indicators that point to their reliability as historical sources. In part two, I will draw on the works of a number of scholars such as Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, Peter Williams, and Simon Gathercole.

As a preliminary matter, let us define a number of important terms that will be used in this series:

Synoptic Gospels – These refer to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” because of their similarities in terms of the stories they recount about Jesus, sequence, and wording. The Synoptics are differentiated from the gospel of John, which contains a lot of unique material not found in the Synoptics and differs from the Synoptic tradition in significant ways. 

Two-source hypothesis – The two-source hypothesis is the solution to the Synoptic problem (i.e. what is the literary relationship of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to each other) that is held by the majority of scholars today. According to the hypothesis, Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke wrote next, drawing substantially from Mark in writing their Gospels and another shared source called “Q”. Matthew and Luke also drew on their own exclusive sources which are referred to as “M” and “L”. John is not included in the two-source hypothesis because most scholars believe that its author wrote independently from the Synoptics. 

Standard dating – This refers to the dating of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles that is accepted by most scholars today. According to the standard dating, Mark was written around 70 AD, Matthew and Luke were written around 80-85 AD and John was written around 90-95 AD.[1] In this dating scheme, Matthew and Luke are dated 10-15 years after Mark in order to give enough time for Mark’s gospel to be copied and circulated across the empire, and find its way into the hands of Matthew and Luke. As for Acts of the Apostles, most scholars affirm a date in the 80s AD, probably within the same period as the composition of the Gospel of Luke, 80-85 AD.[2]

Collective memory – The shared memory of a community. It is distinguished from individual memory.

In addition to defining these terms, let me lay out other background information.

To start, I want to point out that it is a historical fact that Jesus was a miracle worker. Virtually all scholars, including skeptical scholars, affirm that Jesus was a healer and exorcist, who performed deeds that were viewed by his contemporaries as “miracles”. The disagreement among scholars is not over whether Jesus performed miracles or not, but over how these miracles are to be interpreted (i.e. healings of organic illnesses and therefore pointing to divine causation, healings of psychosomatic illnesses, or the result of the placebo effect). Jesus’ being a miracle worker will be casually mentioned later in this article, so I want to ensure that readers know that this aspect of Jesus’ life is not disputed beforehand (skeptics who do not know this will wonder why I casually assume the historicity of Jesus’ miracles if I do not clarify this!).

I also want to encourage readers to pick up scholar Brant Pitre’s The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, if they want to investigate the reliability of the Gospels further after reading this series. Pitre provides important information on authorship and dating that I will not discuss here (see footnote 3 though for some basic information).[3]

Readers may also want to check out my blog post, “Advances in New Testament Scholarship“, before or after reading this series. That blog post compliments this two-part series very well.

Having defined our terms and laid down certain background information, let us now begin our discussion on the historical reliability of the New Testament and go through part one of our series. As mentioned earlier, part one focuses on what we should expect from the Gospels and Acts as historical sources based on multiple factors.

We will begin part one by discussing the views of scholarship on the genres of the Gospels and Acts, as well as go through a brief history of how scholarship changed its views regarding the genre of the Gospels in particular (section 2). Then, we will go through a quick course on ancient biography (section 3), focusing on details relevant to the subsequent discussion on the Gospels as ancient biographies (section 4). After our discussion on the Gospels, we will discuss Acts as a work of ancient historiography (section 5). After this, we will end with a conclusion on the Gospels and Acts as historical sources (section 6), summarizing the key findings of our discussion and answering the question: “What should we expect from these sources in terms of preserving reliable information about Jesus and the early Christian Church?”.

2. The Gospels as Greco-Roman Biography; Acts as Historiography

Prior to the 1990s, a large segment of New Testament scholarship viewed the Gospels as belonging to the genre of “sui-generis”, a genre unique to the Gospels. This sui generis was viewed as a type of mythology.[4] Since then, however, there has been a great swing in scholarly opinion. Today, the consensus view among scholars is that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography, and within the family of Greco-Roman biography in particular.[5] This shift in scholarly opinion was initiated by Charles Talbert and later cemented by Richard Burridge’s influential work “What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography” (1992).

Burridge was a classicist who set out to disprove the thesis first proposed by Talbert and a few other American scholars that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient biography. During the course of his research, however, Burridge reversed his opinion, and his work would go on to change the world of scholarship on the subject. As scholar Craig Keener comments, it was Burridge’s “forceful Cambridge monograph that largely effected the paradigm shift in Gospels studies”, showing how Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John belong to the genre of ancient biography.[6]

As for Acts of the Apostles, the consensus view among scholars today is that it belongs to the genre of ancient historiography.[7]

3. Ancient Biography

Before we proceed to our discussion on the Gospels, let us go through a quick course on ancient biography. The information discussed in this section will be relevant in our later discussion on the Gospels as ancient biographies.

To start off this section, let us look at the development of ancient biography.

3.1. Development

Literary genres are not static. They develop within cultures over time.

Like other literary genres, the genre of ancient biography developed. As Keener notes, a “number of generic predecessors with various degrees of biographic focus” came before what we would call full biographies.[10] These works usually differed considerably from biographies of the early empire period, especially in terms of interest in and commitment to historical accuracy.

A notable development in the genre of ancient biography before the early empire period was the emergence of the prose encomium. It must be noted, however, that these works are not considered biographies but “protobiographies”. The prose encomium was primarily encomiastic, that is, praise-oriented. As a result, Keener notes that one “should certainly not expect a balanced or always truthful picture” from these works.[11]

Moving into the Hellenistic era, biographic writing achieved the title of “bios” or life. Biographies in this period were often written about poets. These lives were typically very short (consisting of a few paragraphs) and sketchy (in the sense of lacking detail and substance). They were also often compiled with other brief biographies. Since there was very little information about poets, biographers of this era often compensated by making inferences about them from their poems.[12] This practice, of course, resulted in dubious information about the biographee. During the Hellenistic era, biographies were also written about sages and public figures. Later surviving sources suggest that Antigonus of Carystus’s “Lives of Philosophers” established a new standard for accuracy in depicting the sages of his era.[13]

Among works that have survived, biographies in the fullest sense began with Cornelius Nepos (ca. 100 BC –  24 BC), who wrote in the last generation of the Roman Republic. The flowering of ancient biography began with Nepos’ works, at least with regard to surviving or extant treatment of public figures.[14] Nepos was clearly interested in using historical information. His works provide a standard of accuracy that was missing in what we know of Hellenistic biography. With the works of Nepos, historical interest in biographies reached a range found in the early empire. Ancient biographies also assumed a three-part structure (for full-length biographic works) that differed from the continuous flow in standard historical works.[15]

The historiographic standards for ancient biography reached their peak during the early empire period, which spanned the late first century BC to the early third century AD.[16] Greco-Roman biographers such as Plutarch, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Lucian, and Jewish biographers such as Philo and Josephus, all confirm this direction. Even the lives of the poets during this period displayed a clear increase in historiographic sensitivity. As Keener notes, the early empire was the “apex of historical biography”.[17]

In late antiquity, the nature of biographical works would change from that of the early empire. Hagiography was embraced. In these works, sacred idealization of the subject became a major force and historical accuracy was not highly valued. As Keener notes, hagiography “conflates the character concern of biography with the fictional and plot concerns of the novel”.[18]

3.2. Definition and Basic Information

Ancient biography is defined as a narrative of a real individual’s life based on prior information.[19] As a genre, it is a subtype of ancient historiography.[20]

Early empire biographies, in particular, had strong historiographic commitments. Biographers during the early empire sought to communicate authentic information about their subject and not fabricate events like ancient novels (including historical novels) did.[21]

3.3. Biographies by Subjects

One organic way scholars organize ancient biographies is by subject. Ancient biographers composed works on different types of individuals: public figures like political and military figures, sages, and poets.

Biographies on different types of individuals varied in the amount of information they contained. This is because more information was available for some individuals than others. Biographies of public figures, for example, were longer than biographies of poets. They were also typically longer than biographies of sages because information about sages was less available except in schools themselves.

Overall, a person’s actions were important in ancient biographies. However, since most sages led relatively uneventful lives, biographies of sages tended to focus more on their words than on their actions.[22]

3.4. Sources Used

Since biography is a subtype of historiography, it deals in historical information. This brings us to the question: how did historical writers in antiquity garner information? What kind of sources did they seek?

Ancient historians garnered information in a number of ways: personal experience, interviewing individuals and consulting other texts (public records, histories, biographies, memoirs, etc). The ideal source of information for historians was their own experience — being an eyewitness to the events they wrote about.[21] The next preferred source was personally interviewing eyewitnesses.[23]

Investigation methods also differed among historians.

Primary research was a strength of Greek historians.[24] The Greek term often used for research or investigation, ἱστορία (historia), indicates what many from an early period regarded as historiography’s central characteristic: questioning those with firsthand knowledge then weaving their responses into a cohesive narrative. As Keener notes:

Greek historians often traveled to the locations of events and consulted those whom they considered reliable oral sources.[25]

Not all historians traveled, however. As Keener notes regarding Roman historians:

Because of senatorial records, Roman historians often had sufficient information for their interests without the need for field research, and because Romans’ interest was more in providing examples than history for its own sake, Roman historians sometimes appear less careful with facts than Greeks.[26]

3.5. Time of Writing

Time of writing or distance from the events being recounted is an important factor in historical writing.

Biographers writing within living memory of the events had access to more reliable sources than biographers writing outside living memory. Living memory is the period in which eyewitnesses or their hearers were alive.[27]

A biographer writing within living memory had access to eyewitnesses or those who heard them. Within the period of living memory, the closer in time a biographer was to the events, the greater access he had to the above sources. Reports within living memory, that is, within 80 years, at most, 100 years, are normally the most reliable.[28] According to scholars of social-memory research, in virtually any kind of society, the period of living memory spans within this period.[29]

A biographer in the early empire period also faced other issues if he was writing about a figure in the distant past. As Keener notes:

In contrast to typical biographers and historians of the early empire, some earlier orators fabricated significant information surrounding history that lay beyond living memory. Once told, such stories became part of the collective memory on which later writers might draw, knowingly or unknowingly. Over the span of centuries, adaptations by less conservative tradents and writers could accumulate significantly.[30]

For these biographers, writing about events in the distant past required them to sort through legendary and actual historical data.  

Although it is typically better to write closer in time to the events being recounted, ancient historians knew that sources too close to the events could be less reliable and lack perspective.[31] This is due to the influence of political pressure and the matter of historical perspective. 

When it comes to political pressure, Keener notes that “[p]leasing powerful potential readers was a significant temptation and avoiding their wrath sometimes a necessity”.[32] Given the political environment of his time, Nicolaus of Damascus was prudent to praise Augustus and Herod the Great. The historian Velleius Paterculus was “far less reserved” in his praise of Tiberius, who was emperor at the time of his writing, than later historians. Arrian preferred Ptolemy and Aristobulus as sources for Alexander the Great because Alexander was dead at the time they wrote their histories. As a result, they were not pressured or influenced to engage in flattery (unlike Callisthenes, Alexander’s embedded historian, who did engage in flattery).

On the issue of historical perspective, historians “often need at least some space after events to discern which events will lead to significant events in the long run”.[33] Scholar Markus Bockmuehl points out that the 1940 edition of Encylopaedia Britannica devotes only a half column to Adolf Hitler, offering “more information about his ‘vegetarian diet and lack of respect for the Treaty of Versailles than about his ideological views on Greater Germany or the Jews’”.[34] Likewise, the work’s much longer article on Winston Churchill focuses on his military failures in World War I and dismisses his current relevance as a “political has-been”. As Keener notes: “These two individuals would bear roles of entirely different significance when viewed from a vantage point of several years later”.[35] Ultimately, writing from an adequate distance to the events allows a historical writer to avoid myopia.

3.6. Ancient Biography vs. Modern Biography

Although ancient and modern biography both aim to communicate historical information about an individual in narrative form, ancient biography differed from its modern namesake in certain ways. As Keener notes: “The conventions of ancient biography permitted considerable freedom in how biographers recounted their information”.[36]

In his seminal work, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography” (2016), scholar Michael Licona lists various compositional devices that were used in the writing of ancient biographies. These include the following:[37]

  1. Transferal of information about one figure to another.
  2. Displacement of an event from one context to another. 
  3. Conflation of material to simplify it.
  4. Compression of time sequences to maintain dramatic continuity.
  5. Spotlighting to keep the focus on a single character, despite knowledge that others were involved.
  6. Simplification that removes or changes details to prevent the narrative from being cluttered.
  7. Filling in plausible details where they were unknown to maintain narrative’s realism.
  8. Paraphrase.

Some of these compositional devices are still employed in modern biographic writing. Some of these, however, are no longer accepted.

Another way by which ancient biographies differ from modern biographies is in the standard of verbal precision. Verbatim wording was not expected in ancient biographies. As Keener notes:

In all ancient historical work, the primary interest was the gist more than precise wording. Historians necessarily employed standards of accuracy appropriate to memory rather than to recordings.[38]

4. The Gospels As Biographies

Having gone through an overview of ancient biography, we can now look at the Gospels as ancient biographies and examine various factors affecting their content. These factors will have an effect on how we view the Gospels in terms of historical reliability.

4.1. Full-Length Biographies of A Public Figure and Sage

The Gospels are ancient biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of the movement known today as Christianity.

As mentioned earlier, one organic way of organizing ancient biographies is by subject: public figures like political and military figures, sages, and poets. When it comes to Jesus, he encompasses two categories since he was both a public figure and sage (i.e. teacher or philosopher).

Since Jesus was a sage, the Gospels contain elements typical of biographies of sages — teachings, anecdotes (to illustrate the sage’s moral teaching), and aphorisms.

In addition to being a sage, Jesus was also a public figure like certain other sages such as Socrates, Crates, and Demonax who became publicly known in their communities.[39] Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracle-working drew large crowds. He also drew controversy among the Jewish religious leadership and was executed publicly.

As mentioned earlier, biographies of sages tended to focus more on a sage’s words than his actions. This is because most sages led relatively uneventful lives. Since Jesus was also a public figure, the Gospel authors were able to focus on his actions significantly.

Like biographies of other public figures, the Gospels are also full-length biographies — possessing a three-part structure.[40] This feature of the Gospels follows from Jesus being a public figure, but it also follows from another fact — that the Gospels emerged from the early Church, a community deeply interested in Jesus and led by his disciples in the decades following his death. The Gospels being full-length biographies indicates that the Gospel authors had substantial information on Jesus to work with. They were not dealing with information scarcity as biographers of poets did, for example.

4.2. Early Empire Biographies

The Gospels were written during the early empire, the period when historiographic standards for ancient biography were at their highest. This period is situated after the era of prose encomium and before the period of hagiography. As Keener notes, strong historiographic commitments “clearly dominated by the era of the Gospels”.[41]

4.3. Written in the Eastern Mediterranean

It is also worth noting that the Gospels were written in the Eastern Mediterranean, an area in which the Greek practice of historia, seeking firsthand knowledge by traveling to the locations of the events and interviewing eyewitnesses, clearly prevailed. As Keener notes:

Greek practice dominated the eastern Mediterranean, from which the Gospels, written in Greek, hail.[42]

4.4. Written Within Living Memory

The Gospels were written within living memory of Jesus. Based on the standard dating, the Gospels were written 40-65 years after the death of Jesus — that is within living memory.[43] Mark’s gospel, in particular, was written well within living memory.[44] Since the Gospels were written within living memory, their authors were in a good position to receive reliable information about Jesus, and ultimately, record a substantial amount of historical information.[45]

Since the Gospels were written 40-65 years after the events they recount, they also fall under the ideal period to write historical works.[46] The Gospels fall within living memory but they are distant enough from the initial events to not fall under political pressure and (more relevant to the Gospel tradition) and avoid myopia.[47]

It must also be noted that by the standard dating, the Gospels were written closer to the events they recount than most extant historical works in antiquity. By ancient standards, 40-65 years is not a long period.[48] Around forty years, as is the case with Mark’s gospel, is even short! As Keener notes:

Only a few surviving ancient biographies come from within roughly four decades of their chief character, as Mark likely does.[49]

To put this into perspective, Arrian’s biography of Alexander the Great (our best surviving biography of Alexander) was written four centuries after his death.[50] Plutarch’s biography of Cicero, the great Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher, was written around 140 years after his death.[51] Suetonius’ biography of Tiberius, the Roman emperor during Jesus’ lifetime (reigned 14 – 37 AD) was written at least some 80 years after his death![52]

In addition to Suetonius’ biography of Tiberius, it is worth noting the Roman histories we have that also give us information on Tiberius (unlike biographies, which focus on a single person, histories focus on a single topic and often involve multiple individuals). Even most of these histories, however, are further away from the death of Tiberius than any of the Gospels are from the death of Jesus. Velleius Paterculus’ work was written 7 years before the death of Tiberius while Tacitus’ and Dio Cassius’ Roman histories were written at least 70 and 160 years after the death of Tiberius.[53] Furthermore, although Paterculus’ history was written while Tiberius was still alive, his testimony is usually valued less by scholars than that of the other three writers since Paterculus engaged in flattery towards Tiberius. He may have been working under Tiberius’ patronage.[54]

Ultimately, as Keener notes, most of what is known about the ancient world comes from surviving biographic and historical sources written within the same distance of the Gospels to the events they recount (40-65 years) or beyond (more than 65 years).[55]

In addition to what has been discussed, the existence of earlier written sources about Jesus must be noted as well. In certain cases, we know that there are earlier works for historical figures that have not survived. We know, for example, that there were earlier works on Alexander the Great that Arrian drew on (e.g. the works of Aristobulus and Ptolemy). When it comes to Jesus, the same can be said.

Luke notes that “many” written accounts about Jesus were circulating the early Church before he wrote his own gospel (Lk 1:1). One of these sources is undoubtedly Mark. Another may have been the hypothetical Q source, which was probably primarily a collection of Jesus’ sayings (based on the shared material between Matthew and Luke). As Keener notes, other than Mark, however, these other written accounts have been lost to history.[56] The need for copying these texts was presumably lessened as Mark and the later Gospels covered or surpassed their contents. These earlier texts that Luke mentions other than Mark may have been circulating around the period of Mark’s gospel, or even earlier (scholars date Q between 40-60 AD).[57]

4.5. The Value of Memory in Antiquity

One factor to take into account in the remembrance and passing on of Jesus’ deeds and teachings is that ancient culture highly valued memory. As Keener notes:

[There was] a necessity for memory in all ancient learning, whether formal or informal, literate or illiterate, in Greek elementary schools or for disciples for ancient disciples following an itinerant teacher. Ancient pedagogy without a focus on memory did not exist.[58]

Likewise, scholar of Roman antiquity, Karl Galinsky, notes:

Ancient Rome was a memory culture par excellence.[59]

To illustrate the high value placed on memory in antiquity, we can look to examples from Greco-Roman and Jewish culture.

When it comes to Greco-Roman culture, Greek students memorized considerable portions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, works that were deemed quintessential to their culture. Many illiterate bards were also able to narrate these works from memory in their entirety.[60] Orators in antiquity were supposed to memorize their speeches, even though these could run for two or three hours![61] In Greco-Roman education, maxims were memorized and passed on for centuries, even in elementary educational settings. 

The value of memory was also evident in Jewish culture. Jewish education “emphasized memorization of the Torah”.[62] In addition to the Torah, other aspects of the Jewish tradition needed to be learned. These necessarily entailed the development of memory skills. As Keener notes:

Most relevantly, Jewish boys necessarily developed memory skills; whether or not they could read and (still more rarely) write, Jewish boys learned to recite Torah. Those who were not literate therefore learned Torah orally.[63]

More generally, Judeans and Galileans were known for instructing boys meticulously in the law, probably especially orally and presumably therefore requiring the boys to develop skills in oral memory.[64] 

Like the broader Greco-Roman circulation of maxims, Judean oral training involved memorizing and passing on various types of wise sayings such as proverbs, parables, etc — rhetorical forms which were also used by Jesus.[65]

In the end, ancient culture valued and developed memory much more than modern Western culture. This is the era in which Jesus and the disciples lived. The value and emphasis placed on memory in antiquity undoubtedly aided the disciples and other early Christians in remembering Jesus’ deeds and teachings.[66] 

4.6. Jesus was a Teacher

An important factor that must be taken into account in the remembrance and passing on of Jesus’ legacy is that Jesus was a teacher with disciples.[67] As a teacher, we would expect Jesus to pass on his teachings to his disciples. On the other hand, we would expect Jesus’ disciples, as disciples, to learn and pass on his teaching carefully. As Keener notes, these basic teacher-disciple goals were normally achieved in antiquity.[68]

In antiquity, teachers expected disciples to develop their memories in order to learn and remember their teachings.[69] One major way disciples ingrained their sage’s teachings was repetition or rehearsal.[70] We have evidence for this practice among Greek and Jewish disciples.

It was also standard practice for disciples to not only learn their sage’s teachings, but study and emulate their behavior. As Keener comments on the effects of this practice: “Not surprisingly, then, they also transmitted it”.[71] This was a practice among Greek and Jewish disciples. In fact, later Jewish disciples cited the behavior of earlier rabbis as legal precedent.

Moving on from the disciples to Jesus, Jesus, as a teacher, used various teaching techniques for “easy remembering”.[72] Prominent features in the Gospels include various kinds of parallelism, alliteration, assonance, and wordplay, as cataloged by a host of New Testament scholars.

During his ministry, Jesus trained his disciples in various ways. He instructed his disciples as a group (Mk 4:34; 23:10; Matt 11:1; 20:25-27) and he also sent them out on preaching missions in pairs (Mk 6:6-7 and Lk 10:1-16). The fact that Jesus sent out his disciples on preaching missions implies that “there must have been agreement between Jesus and his disciples on the message they should preach and the life-style they should follow”.[73] This action of sending out disciples in pairs also guards against error and fosters learning. If one disciple forgot or committed a mistake in preaching, the other person would have been able to help him or correct him. They also would have been able to talk to each other about their preaching mission beforehand and afterward.

Having said all that, although Jesus’ disciples were like other disciples in many respects, the tradition does highlight a key feature that separates Jesus’ disciples from many kinds of disciples. As Keener notes:

Their adherence to Jesus was not to one teacher among many, as in the rabbinic movement or among many popular philosophers. It is closer to that of disciples of a teacher founding a new school or movement.[74]

Ultimately, as Keener notes, disciples in antiquity “normally preserved the substance of their masters teachings and, where relevant, stories about their behavior”.[75] Transmission through disciples was, in fact, “one of ancient memory’s most careful forms of transmission”.[76] In light of the evidence, the most appropriate starting assumption should be that Jesus’ disciples would have learned and transmitted his teachings no less carefully than other disciples in antiquity transmitted the teachings of their sages.[77] 

4.7. Memory and Eyewitnesses

Besides earlier texts, biographers had to depend on memories to write their works. These could have been their own memories for events they witnessed, the memories of eyewitnesses whom they interviewed, or the memories of those who had heard the eyewitnesses.[78]

Since biographical works depend on memory in an important way, we need to tackle the subject of memory, its capabilities and frailties, in our discussion on the Gospels as historical sources. The capabilities and frailties of memory will have implications on the reliability of the Gospels. They will help us form judicious expectations for the Gospels as historical sources.

In our discussion below, we will examine memory’s capabilities, what kind of events are usually remembered, the frailties of memory, and end with a conclusion on the Gospels and memory.

4.7.1. Memory’s Capabilities: Remembering the Gist

Although memory is fallible, it is generally reliable in accurately recounting the gist (substance or essence) of events.[79] This is what we should expect from the Gospels — for them to accurately preserve the gist of Jesus’ deeds and teachings. The exception to this would be Jesus’ aphorisms. These would be preserved closer to verbatim like other aphorisms in antiquity. An analysis of the Gospel texts also confirms this. Aphorisms are reported by the Gospel authors closer to verbatim agreement than Jesus’ parables.[80]

When it comes to the Gospels preserving the gist of events, Keener illustrates two examples of what this would look like:

If disciples witnessed the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Lk:11-17), features they might well recall would include the locality (Nain) and the raising of the widow’s son in the midst of the burial procession. Luke would be within his rights as a historian to reconstruct Jesus’s wording, to infer (based on his other knowledge) the crowds and Jesus’ compassion, and to mention the gate (7:12), even if these features were not in his oral or written source (although they may have been).

Since Mark knows Jairus’s name (in contrast to that of many other characters in his Gospel, (e.g., in 1:40; 2:3; 3:1; 5:2), the ultimate source of the account may have been familiar with this locally prominent family (cf. 5:22). Jesus’ immediate disciples (5:37) could well have remembered mourners’ scorn (5:40), obviously the previously apparently dead girl responding to Jesus, walking and eating (5:41-43), and a feature as striking as Jesus touching someone presumed dead (5:41). While we normally do not expect recollection of direct discourse, the preservation of the Aramaic command “Talitha kum!” (5:41) presumably reflects a reminiscence rather than Mark’s elaboration, since Mark must translate it for his audience. Details such as the witnesses’ astonishment could well be in Mark’s source, but neither would any of us likely begrudge him this inference.

Others will insist on a core larger or smaller for these examples, but the point is that the Evangelists normally derive the basic putative events from their sources; in the case of these illustrations, the genre leads me to expect that Luke and Mark did not invent the stories that Jesus raised this young man and woman.[81]

4.7.2. Events We Remember

We experience so much in our lives, but what do we tend to remember? We tend to remember events that are memorable such as unusual, distinctive, or emotionally charged experiences.[82]  

We are also more likely to remember experiences that we found mentally engaging, experiences that we have shared with others (the more we “rehearse” memories, the more likely we are to remember them), and memories of matters that are of great interest or importance to us.[83]

Experiences that impress on multiple senses (e.g. sight, sound, and smell) are also more memorable.[84] This is because we reconstruct memory based on multiple memory subsystems in different parts of the brain. As a result, these experiences enjoy multisensory reinforcement.

Looking at the disciples, we see that many of their experiences with Jesus must have been memorable. Of course, they must have been able to remember many of Jesus’ miracles as unusual and distinct events.[85] In addition to this, Keener notes other experiences with Jesus that the disciples may have found memorable:

The Gospels do suggest that Jesus’ closest followers would have had such stark, emotive experiences (Mk 4:38-41; 6:49:-51; 8:17-21, 33; 9:32; 10:13-14, 24, 26, 32; 14:18, 22-25, 29-31, 38, 43-52, 72). Jesus’ teachings also incorporate graphic, often vivid visual imagery that could impress itself through hearer’s imagination in multiple subsystems (e.g. Matt 5:34-36, 39-41, 46; 6:2, 26-30; Mk 9:42-43; Lk 12:6-7). Morally salient information also invites “evaluative attention”, hence reinforces retention; evaluative attention is relevant to the consideration demanded by Jesus’ ethical pronouncements and riddles.[86]

They must have remembered significant personal-event memories related to Jesus as well, such as their callings (Mk 1:16-20; Matt 9:9-13) and other words or deeds of Jesus that had a significant impact on them, or “stood out” to them (Mk 1:29–31; 3:13-19; 8:31-33; 9:2-7, Matt 16:17-20; Jhn 13:4-17; 19:25-27).

The disciples must have also been able to remember Jesus’ teachings, as well as many of their experiences with him, due to repetition or rehearsal. There are two points to note here.

One, Jesus recounted his teachings many times.[87] Many people needed to hear them after all. The privilege of hearing the content of the Sermon on the Mount did not belong to a single group of people, and neither did the privilege of hearing many of Jesus’ parables, or his teachings on the primacy of love, the importance of faith, forgiveness, etc. In addition to preaching in public, Jesus also instructed his disciples in private (Mk 4:34; 23:10; Matt 11:1; 20:25-27).

Two, the disciples rehearsed Jesus’ deeds and teachings many times. Like other disciples in antiquity, Jesus’ disciples must have been recounting his deeds and teachings from the start, that is, from the moment they became disciples.[88] As mentioned earlier, Jesus also sent out his disciples in pairs on preaching missions. This must have further ingrained his teachings in their memories. As they taught, they must have continuously rehearsed the things that they learned. Furthermore, after Jesus’ death, as the Christian movement began to spread with communities being established across the Mediterranean, the disciples of Jesus must have continued preaching. They must have also been invited to recount their stories of Jesus again and again.[89] These must have reinforced their memories of these experiences.

Another reason why the disciples must have remembered Jesus’ teachings and many of his deeds is because these were of great interest to them. As Keener notes, the disciples clearly had a deep interest in Jesus.[90] They devoted their lives to learning and passing on Jesus’ teaching, and after the death of Jesus, they continued in their mission of passing it on in the face of hardship and persecution.

4.7.3. Memory’s Frailties

Although memory aids us in our daily life, it does have frailties.

When we remember events, our mind reconstructs memory from different subsystems. If there are gaps, our mind sometimes fills them in with inferences, “including mental elaborations and explanations fused to our memories”.[91] This process can lead to errors.

As Keener notes, “[o]ur memories are not video cameras”.[92] Although memory studies suggest that memory is generally reliable in accurately recounting the gist of events, it can be faulty at times in the details due to human fallibility.

When it comes to eyewitness testimony, the most relevant memory frailties are suggestibility, chronological conflations, and transience.[93]

a. Suggestability

Suggestibility involves the emergence and/or acceptance of false memories. False memories involve distortions, and in extreme cases, remembering events that never happened at all.

Memory experiments, however, show that planted false memories tend to lack “perceptual detail”, are much more difficult to recall afterward than genuine memories, and are “more readily subject to correction or suppression in healthy adults”.[94] Furthermore, one important observation about false memories is that they are only accepted by the individual because they possess the characteristic of plausibility. For this reason, scholar Robert McIver notes that any false collective memories that survived in the Jesus tradition may well have been consistent with the overall gist of Jesus’ ministry. They likely would have persisted because they had “considerable congruence” with “what Jesus did and said”.[95] 

As for the possibility of remembering events that never happened at all, this is unlikely. Cases of these are “very rare”.[96] Today, instances of these sometimes include unintentionally fabricated memories “recovered” in therapy but as Keener notes, this phenomenon was not available to adjust memories in antiquity.

b. Chronological Conflations

Another memory frailty is the lack of accurate chronological connection for memories.

Chronological errors are one of the most common memory errors. As Keener notes:

[I]ndividual memory usually preserves episodes … piecemeal, organizing them interpretively rather than chronologically. Although episodic memory may preserve location and other elements, the timing of events normally must be reconstructed from other memory cues rather than simply retrieved from memory. Memory often conflates experiences that are similar.[97]

Precise chronology, however, was not an expectation in ancient biography, especially given their frequent dependence on episodic recollections.[98] Literary devices employed in ancient biographies further attest to this. Conflation of events to condense stories and rearrangement of material in terms of events and sayings were accepted practices in ancient biographic writing. 

c. Transience

Transience refers to the fact that we forget most of what we experience. As Keener notes, this frailty is a survival strength. It prevents our brains from being overloaded.[99]

According to memory studies, after five years, witnesses might recall as many as half of “distinctive episodes” and particularly significant memories.[100] However, memory studies also show that memories that remain after those five years typically remain stable for decades.[101]

Some studies even confirm the tendency to recall memorable personal events for up to six decades![102] Researchers, for example, compared Danish citizens who had experienced the time of the German invasion (April 9, 1940) and subsequent surrender (May 4, 1945) with others who had only studied it in school. More than two-thirds of those who lived through the invasion correctly remembered the weather during the invasion as opposed to about one-twentieth of the control group. Around one-sixth of the witnesses could even recall the time of the German surrender within five minutes, a feat no one among the student group could replicate. Those who did not recall the correct answer normally did not substitute an incorrect one as well.

In another study, four decades after the closure of Camp Erika, a Dutch prison camp, nearly all interviewed survivors recalled it vividly.[103] More than half of the survivors could even recall the precise date of their imprisonment; over half also remembered their registration number.

As Keener notes, the crucial period for the eyewitnesses’ ability to remember what they witnessed is the first five years after the crucifixion of Jesus, not the forty to sixty-five years before the writing of the Gospels. Most of what the disciples remembered after five years must have persisted through the following decades, especially when it was reinforced through retellings.[104] 

3.7.4. Memory and Eyewitnesses: Conclusion

Ultimately, the frailties of memory argue against verbatim recall in the Gospels, as well as for the possibility of errors in detail. However, the capabilities of memory suggest that the disciples must have been able to accurately recount the gist of many events related to Jesus, as well as his teachings. 

Based on information from the Gospels, the disciples spent considerable time with Jesus during his ministry — around three years. They must have been able to remember many memorable events, certainly enough to fill more than a gospel. As Keener notes:

What they did remember after a few years, however, should have easily filled more than a Gospel, rather than less. Indeed, if we add up the time necessary for the occurrence of all episodes reported in all four Gospels, it would represent only a fraction of a one-year ministry.[105] 

In fact, the author of John states that Jesus did many more things that he did not recount in his gospel (Jhn 20:30, 21:25).

4.8. The Gospels And Eyewitness Testimony

In antiquity, if someone sought to produce an authoritative historical work, he would seek out eyewitness testimony. As Keener notes: “This was the historical and biographic practice everywhere favored in antiquity”.[106] Failing eyewitnesses themselves, historical writers would appeal to material that they believed came from eyewitnesses. Thus, they “sought information from sources as close to the eyewitnesses as possible”.[107] One then should expect the Gospel authors, who chose the biographic medium and obviously valued Jesus’ example and teachings, to treat their subject as respectfully as other historical writers did during their time. As Keener notes:

They must have at least believed that their material cohered in basic substance and spirit with the testimony of the witnesses present at the events they depict.[108]

This brings us to the question — who were eyewitnesses to Jesus in the early Church? Eyewitnesses to Jesus would include the Twelve (Mk 3:13-19), a sizable group of other disciples, both male and female (Lk 8:1-3; 10:1-23), Jesus’ mother and relatives (Acts 1:13-14), and recipients and witnesses of his healings.

Although many besides the eyewitnesses would have been recounting stories about Jesus, the eyewitnesses themselves would have been viewed as the most authoritative sources within the early Church.[109] As Keener notes, other authoritative voices would have been leaders such as elders, who would have the greatest contact with the apostles (Acts 6:6; 14:23: 15:6).[110]

Given the time frame, the Gospel authors may have had direct contacts with eyewitnesses (some may have been eyewitnesses as well!). This is especially true of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus had many disciples and most disciples in antiquity were young and in their teens. As Keener notes:

Like most disciples of other teachers, whether Jewish or gentile, most of Jesus’ disciples were probably in their teens, with a few possibly in their early twenties.[111]

Given their youth, many of Jesus’ disciples would have lived several decades after his death in 30 AD.

Based on the standard dating (Mark 70 AD, Luke and Matthew 80-85 AD, and John 90-95 AD), Mark was written when a fair number of eyewitnesses were still alive, while Matthew, Luke, and (especially) John were written when eyewitnesses were becoming scarce.[112] Of course, the Evangelists may have had contact with eyewitnesses at an earlier point in time, prior to the writing of their Gospels.

Furthermore, although eyewitnesses were becoming scarce in the period Matthew, Luke, and John wrote their Gospels, many people who heard the eyewitnesses would have still been alive.[113] A number of these individuals would have also held leadership positions within the early Church.[114] Even if we were to suppose that the traditions in the Gospels do not come directly from eyewitnesses, they would still come to us from communities closely removed from them, with many individuals who heard the eyewitnesses still being alive. This is the benefit of the Gospels being written within living memory. We will discuss drawing on community or collective memory later in subsection 4.9.2.

With that said, let us examine the Gospels, our main sources about Jesus, in more detail. Working with prominent scholarly views on authorship, let us assess them as sources to Jesus. 

4.8.1. Working With Prominent Views

According to the traditional view, not all of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Mark was an interpreter of Peter and Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Only Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus, and therefore, eyewitnesses. Although traditional authorship for all four Gospels can be defended with good scholarly force (see footnote 3 for some basic information), we may base our reconstruction here on prominent views in contemporary scholarship.

The gospel of Mark. Today, a large number of scholars (probably the majority) believe that the gospel of Mark was written by Mark. In 2019, Josh Pelletier conducted the largest survey on Markan authorship to date.[115] Pelletier surveyed the views of 207 critical scholars writing in English, in their published works from 1965 onwards, and found that most scholars believe that Mark was the author of Mark’s gospel and that Peter was his source or one of his sources.

This is in line with the strong Church tradition that Mark wrote his gospel based on the reminisces of Peter. The earliest testimony for Markan authorship comes from Papias (60-130 AD), a second-generation Christian who was instructed by John the Elder (John the Elder may have been John the Apostle!). As Papias notes ca. 100 AD regarding Mark’s gospel:

And the elder [John] used to say this: “Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or make any false statement in them.[116]

The gospel of Luke. As Keener notes, a large number of scholars (probably the majority) believe that the gospel of Luke was written by Luke.[117] As a member of the Jesus movement at an earlier date, Luke himself states that he investigated matters “from the very beginning” (Lk 1:3) and that the material in his gospel is in line with the testimony of “those who from the first were eyewitnesses” (Lk 1:2).

The gospel of John. Finally, a large number of Johannine scholars (probably the majority) believe that the main source behind John’s gospel was an eyewitness and disciple of Jesus. In fact, John’s gospel is explicit in its source being a disciple of Jesus (Jhn 21:24). As Keener notes:

Probably a majority of Johannine scholars, including myself, do view the beloved disciple, the main source behind the Fourth Gospel, as an eyewitness personally acquainted with Jesus.[118]

It is worth noting that the standard dating of 90-95 AD for John does not preclude John the Apostle from writing the gospel. The early Church fathers attest that John lived to be a “very old man” and that he wrote his gospel in his old age.[119] Employing scribes for writing was also common in antiquity among the literate and illiterate.[120] Cicero and St. Paul (Rom 16:22), for example, both used scribes, despite being literate.

As Keener notes, “many” scholars believe that John the Apostle wrote the fourth gospel while many others believe that his disciples had a hand in writing the Gospel based on his reminiscences. Together, these positions enjoy “considerable support”.[121] In fact, in scholar James Charlesworth’s list of views concerning the identity of the beloved disciple, the apostle John enjoys “the longest list of defenders”.[122] Many other scholars also believe that the main source behind the fourth gospel was not John the Apostle but another disciple of Jesus.[123]

Ultimately, under this reconstruction, we have two gospels based on eyewitness testimony (Mark and John), with one of these two (Mark) being based on the testimony of a leading disciple of Jesus. We also have another gospel written by a traveling companion of Paul, Luke. As we shall see in the following subsection (4.8.2. Luke’s Preface), Luke was in a good position to garner information about Jesus from eyewitnesses and other reliable sources (e.g. Paul). As mentioned earlier, Luke also states that the material in his gospel is in line with the testimony of the eyewitnesses (Lk 1:2).

4.8.2. Luke’s Preface

Luke’s preface contains important information about his gospel, so we should look into it. Here is Luke’s preface in full (Lk 1:1-4):

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke includes a preface to his gospel similar to what one finds in works of ancient historiography.[124] His summary of what is to follow is explicitly historical: “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Lk 1:1), and his stated purpose in writing his work, to confirm truth (Lk 1:4), fits expectations for historiography.

Luke also mentions the existence of many written accounts about Jesus prior to his own work, one of which is undoubtedly Mark but the rest have been lost to history. Luke mentions that the contents of these earlier works were in line with the testimony of the “eyewitnesses” (autopai in Greek) and “servants of the word” (Lk 1:2). As scholar Craig Blomberg notes: “The use of the single article in the Greek with the two nouns paired in this fashion suggests the eyewitnesses and those who handed down the tradition were at least two closely related groups and most probably one and the same”.[125] This verse in Luke indicates the high regard the early Church placed on eyewitness testimony and the authoritative status eyewitnesses held in the passing on of the Jesus tradition.

Continuing further, Luke says that he is following in the footsteps of these earlier written accounts in writing a work in line with the testimony of the eyewitnesses. He states his credentials in being able to so to do so as being someone who has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Lk 1:3). The word “investigated” here in the original Greek is the word παρακολουθέω (parakoloutheō), which may refer to “investigation” or “participation”. In any case, the verb indicates “thorough acquaintance” or “informed familiarity”.[126] As Keener notes:

The NRSV’s investigating everything captures some of the sense, but the wording elsewhere in historical prefaces suggests an even more direct acquaintance than investigation; it can even imply participation in some of the narrative, an implication consistent with the narratorial “we” later in the work (see comment at Acts 16:10). But whether by research or other means, the verb parakoloutheô, translated here as “investigating,” denotes such thorough acquaintance that Luke is in a position to evaluate the accuracy of the reports he receives.[127]

Since the sort of familiarity expressed by parakoloutheō “often comes partly through personal involvement”, “participation” is the likely meaning of the verb in this passage.[128] Parakoloutheō, then, would refer to Luke’s involvement in the Christian movement and prior knowledge of the tradition (this is consistent with the “we” sections in Acts, as we shall discuss shortly). Whether by research or participation, Luke’s “thorough acquaintance” would have entailed consulting and contact with reliable sources, presumably eyewitnesses and servants of the word (Lk 1:2) and those who knew them (e.g. Paul).[129]

When Luke says that he has investigated everything “from the beginning” (ἄνωθεν or anōthen), he claims that his acquaintance with the Christian movement began much earlier than the time of his writing.[130] This fits with the “we” passages in Acts.

Scholars widely agree that Luke and Acts were written by the same author.[131] Acts is written in the third person, but at times, shifts into the first person (“we”), when the author of Acts claims to have traveled with Paul. The narrative shifts between third person and first person a number of times throughout Acts. If these “we” passages represent genuine eyewitness material, and the majority of scholars do affirm this, then as Keener notes:

If this is correct, Luke stayed in Judea for up to two years, and would have had plenty of opportunities to talk with eyewitnesses and those who knew them (Acts 21:15; 24:27; 27:1).[132]

The “we” sections in Acts span the 50s AD, beginning in 51 AD and ending in Judea in the late 50s AD, when many eyewitnesses were still alive. In fact, we know that the disciples held key leadership positions within the early Church into the 50s AD (Gal  2:9, 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Cor 9:5).[133]

Before proceeding to the next section, let us return to Luke’s comments in his preface regarding the earlier written sources about Jesus prior to his own work. As Keener notes:

[A]ncient prefaces treated their predecessors in different ways: some berated them, whereas others, more charitably, simply distinguished their respective spheres of activity.[135]

As a member of the Jesus movement at an earlier date (the 50s AD, possibly earlier), Luke praises the accuracy of the works before him. This reflects well on Mark’s gospel. It also indicates the stability of traditions about Jesus over time within the early Church, since Luke affirms the contents of Mark’s gospel, which was written ca. 70 AD, as a member of the Jesus movement at a much earlier date. Luke’s only complaint seems to be about order or rhetorical arrangement (Lk 1:3).[136] This is consistent with the comments of John the Elder on Mark and his gospel that was discussed earlier. Papias, relating what John the Elder said, said that the Elder affirmed the accuracy of Mark but notes that he did not write everything in order.

4.9. Passing on the Jesus Tradition

Stories about Jesus were recounted in the early Church but what role did the eyewitnesses play in this process? In addition to eyewitnesses, the community as a whole would have had a role to play in passing on the Jesus tradition. This brings us to the question, would traditions about Jesus have been well-preserved in collective memory before finding their way into the Gospels?

4.9.1. The Role of Eyewitnesses

During their lives, the eyewitnesses repeatedly recounted their stories about Jesus, and their reminiscences were at the disposal of others who sought information.[137]  

As mentioned earlier, although many besides the eyewitnesses would be recounting stories about Jesus, the eyewitnesses themselves would have been viewed as the most authoritative sources within the early Church. This would have especially been the case for the disciples, who were not only chief eyewitnesses to Jesus but were also leaders in the early Church. As Keener notes:

In Middle Eastern and rural Mediterranean culture, deference to authority and tradition would reinforce the role of Jesus’s designated apostles on both counts. They were both chief eyewitnesses and the chief leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem (cf. Gal 1:19-19; 2:7-9), to which even Diaspora Christians looked as the mother church (Rom 15:25-27; Gal 1:17-18; 2:1-2; cf. 1 Cor 16:4) … As leading eyewitnesses and also leaders of the early Christian movement, Jesus’s chief associates would be accepted as leading authorities on what Jesus said and did. Theirs would be the standard version to which other members of their movement would wish to conform.[138]

While they were alive, the eyewitnesses served as a conservative force on the Jesus tradition.[139] Based on Paul’s letters, we know that the eyewitnesses held key leadership positions within the early Church into the 50s AD (Gal  2:9, 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Cor 9:5). Based on Christian and Jewish sources, we also know that Peter and James the Just, leaders in the early Church (Gal 2:9), were martyred in the 60s AD, ca. 64 AD for Peter and ca. 62 AD for James — a very short distance to the writing of Mark’s gospel.[140]

4.9.2. Drawing from Communal or Collective Memory

What if the Gospel authors drew not on eyewitnesses for their works but on tradition they believed derived from eyewitness testimony? How likely is it that these community traditions were fabricated or significantly altered before eventually finding their way into the Gospels?

When it comes to the fabrication of events, this is unlikely. Although communities shape tradition, they typically do not fabricate it. As scholar Robert McIver notes: “It seems that by and large, outright fabrication of collective memory is rare”.[141] This is especially the case when we are talking about living memory.

It is also highly unlikely that the gist of these traditions would have been significantly altered within 40-65 years since this period is quite short by the standards of oral tradition. As noted by oral historian Jan Vansina, “recent oral tradition — one or two generations [(40-80 years)] suffers only small damage” [(a generation here is defined as a period of 40 years)].[142] 

The major weaknesses of oral tradition apply more to later oral tradition, not recent oral tradition. Traditions about Jesus within the early Church that found their way into the Gospels classify as recent oral tradition, given the period of 40-65 years between the death of Jesus and the completion of the Gospels. As Keener notes, by the standards of oral tradition, “the time frame between Jesus’s ministry and any of the first-century Gospels is quite brief”.[143]

This is not to say that oral tradition beyond two generations (80 years) necessarily becomes significantly distorted. Keener cites many examples of robust oral traditions over a century, as well as over centuries, in various cultures around the world.[144] The point is that recent oral tradition, within 80 years after the events they recount, tends to be well-preserved and not significantly altered. Within this time frame, the gist of oral traditions tends to persist.

In the following subsection, we will discuss in greater depth why traditions about Jesus within the early Church were very likely well-preserved within a timeframe of 40-65 years.

4.9.3. Going Deeper: Why Traditions About Jesus Were Likely Well-Preserved

Given what we know about oral tradition and the early Church, it is highly likely that the gist of traditions about Jesus would have been well-preserved in collective memory. There are many reasons supporting this conclusion.

1. Within Living Memory

The period of oral tradition for all four Gospels is 40-65 years. This falls within living memory, the period during which eyewitnesses or their hearers were alive.

When it comes to eyewitnesses to Jesus, Jesus’ disciples were the chief witnesses. After Jesus’ death in 30 AD, the disciples did not go into “permanent retreat”, they continued to work in the world. They established Christian communities across the Roman Empire, nurtured them, moved among them, preached, and engaged in worship with communities.[145] Based on Paul’s letters we know that the disciples held key leadership within the early Church into the 50s AD. Christian and Jewish sources also attest that Peter and James the Just, leaders in the early Church, were martyred in the 60s AD.

During their lives, the disciples and other eyewitnesses continued to recount their stories of Jesus and their recollections were at the disposal of others who sought information. While they were alive, the eyewitnesses served as a conservative force on the Jesus tradition.

The important point is that the period of 40-65 years between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels was not devoid of eyewitness influence. Eyewitnesses played a major role in a considerable stretch of that period.

Furthermore, when eyewitnesses to Jesus were becoming scarce in 80-95 AD, many people who heard the eyewitnesses would have still been alive (e.g. Luke the Evangelist, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, etc). A number of these individuals would have also held leadership positions within the early Church during this period. Even if we were to suppose that the traditions in the Gospels do not come directly from eyewitnesses, they would still come to us from communities closely removed from them, with many individuals who heard the eyewitnesses still being alive. Once again, this is the benefit of living memory.

2. The Role of Tradents

When it came to the passing on of tradition in communities, individuals called “tradents” assumed the duty of remembering traditions accurately, narrating them to the community, and in general, serving as “repositories” of community tradition.[146] Tradents are a cross-cultural phenomenon — they have been observed in various oral cultures. Tradents function as “strong tradition-bearers” and typically assume the role due to their qualifications such as being eyewitnesses (Jesus’ disciples undoubtedly served as tradents during their lives), having close contact with the eyewitnesses, possessing great memory, etc.[147]

Ultimately, the role of tradents must be considered in the oral period before the writing of the Gospels. Tradents played an important role in the passing on of the Jesus tradition within Christian communities, functioning as strong bearers of tradition.

3. Oral Tradition is Set Up to Endure

Another reason in support of the preservation of the Jesus tradition is that oral tradition is set up to persist for a lengthy period of time. As Keener notes, oral tradition is “specifically designed to counter the frailties of memory”.[148] When it comes to oral tradition, the core of stories generally persists in collective memory, especially within living memory.[149]

Stability is a feature of oral tradition. This is because every retelling of a story stabilizes the core of the tradition in the memory of the community, guarding against future error and distortion.[150] Errors in oral performances were also called out by the audience. As noted by oral historian Jan Assman: “An audience knowledgeable in a tradition is a strong conservative force”.[151] This expectation of public correction kept performers in check since the consequence of correction was shame, which is a more than adequate deterrent in many oral cultures today, as well as in ancient cultures that operated on an honor-shame paradigm.

Having said that, although oral tradition features stability, it also features flexibility. Variation is standard fare in oral performances.[152] Verbatim reproduction was not expected. Oral performers adapted their presentation for their audience, contextualizing stories for them like good teachers or preachers do today. As good storytellers, oral performers also varied in their telling of stories that were retold repeatedly. These variations, however, must come in noncentral details since “one was not allowed to tamper with key information”.[153] Oral tradition, for this reason, is characterized by stability in the core of stories with variation in minor details. 

Ultimately, oral tradition was designed to endure. Since the traditions about Jesus that found their way into the Gospels classify as recent oral tradition, it is highly likely that their gist was well-preserved.

4. Jesus’ Deeds and Teachings Were Important to the Community

Another important factor that needs to be considered when reconstructing the handling and preservation of oral tradition is the importance of the traditions to the community. As Keener notes:

Not all traditions are equal; some are more relevant to community identity and thus more apt to be preserved with greater attentiveness and group concern.[154]

Traditions about Jesus were certainly of great importance to the early Church. They were foundational to the community and must have been preserved with greater care. As Keener notes communities “usually develop more formal and deliberate ways of rehearsing memories important to their group identity”.[155]

5. The Effect of Wider Knowledge of Stories

One more reason for the preservation of the Jesus tradition is the effect of wider knowledge of stories. Wider knowledge of stories could constrain their subsequent telling.[156] We see evidence of this in the preface of Luke’s gospel. As Keener notes:

Luke not only affirms that his account about Jesus rests on information going back to the beginning of the movement (Lk 1:1-2) but also expects that Theophilus will find it consistent with what he has already learned (1:3-4) … The familiarity of Luke’s audience with much of Jesus’s story at the time he wrote (Luke 1:4) presumably constrained his telling.[157] 

Stories about Jesus undoubtedly circulated widely while the disciples held key leadership positions within the early Church in roughly the first three decades of the movement. Not only were the eyewitnesses active during this period but the early Church was already well-connected by the time Paul wrote his letters in the 50s AD. As Keener notes:

Clearly already in the third decade of the Christian movement, many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7–9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). 87 Missionaries could speak about some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1–5; 9:2–4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14–16) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21–22; Col 4:7–9). Some urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carrying letters (Rom 16:1–2; Phil 2:25). They also relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6–15 passim) and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21–23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10–15).[158]

Wider knowledge of stories about Jesus had a constraining effect on their subsequent telling, making later alterations difficult.

So far, in this subsection, we discussed many reasons why traditions about Jesus within the early Church were likely well-preserved before finding their way into the Gospels. Is there any evidence in our sources that suggest that this turned out to be the case, however? Yes. As Keener notes:

Yet most Synoptic accounts actually diverge from one another far less than one encounters in many oral traditions and in many cases of ancient literary dependence. Their conspicuous similarity may reflect their respect for the authoritative status of their material, their lesser rhetorical interest in paraphrase, and most relevantly here, their brief chronological distance from their material.

Some diverse traditions about Jesus arose by the later decades of the first century … Particularly obvious divergences in our sources surface in the specifics of Judas’s grisly death or Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:2-16; Luke 3:24-38). Nevertheless, and in contrast to such examples, the strong majority of gospel tradition reflected in our first-century sources appears remarkably stable. This is likely in part because our written sources derive from the period of living memory of Jesus.[159]

4.10. Use of Prior Sources

As Keener notes, we can assess an author’s intention of reliability in the way he used his sources.[160] In order to do this with the Gospels, we need to take into account their literary relationship. Based on the majority solution to the Synoptic Problem, the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) are as follows — Mark wrote first, Matthew and Luke drew from Mark substantially, another shared source called “Q”, as well as their own exclusive sources — “M” (Matthew) and “L” (Luke).

Although we cannot test how Mark used his sources, the fact that Matthew and Luke drew substantially from Mark suggests their respect for Mark as a reliable historical source about Jesus. This is consistent with Matthew and Luke believing that Peter’s authority stood behind Mark’s gospel. Since Matthew and Luke were writing well within living memory of Mark’s gospel (10-15 years after Mark), they were in a better position than we are today to know who Mark was and assess the reliability of his work.[161]

It is worth noting that some of Mark’s information is attested independently in the letters of Paul. Paul’s letters comprise our earliest extant Christian writings, some twenty-plus years after the death of Jesus. Where Mark and Paul address the same material, the gist remains the same in both (1 Cor 7:10-11; 11:23-26; Mk 10:9-12; 14:22-25).

Looking at how Matthew and Luke adapted Mark and Q, we see that they drew from Mark and Q more conservatively than most of their peers writing biographic or historical works (generous paraphrase was common in ancient historical writing — Matthew and Luke did not do this!).[162] As scholar Michael Licona notes, Matthew and Luke “very often” employ a “near copy and paste method” where we can test them.[163] This may reflect their respect for the authoritative status of their material. If Matthew and Luke adapt their sources conservatively where we can test them, we can expect them to do so where we cannot test them.[164]

On the other hand, most scholars believe that John wrote independently from the Synoptics.[165] This does not necessarily mean that the author of John’s gospel did not know about the Synoptics (he likely did), it means that he did not have any of the Synoptic Gospels in front of him as he was composing his gospel. He did not draw from them as sources. However, it is worth noting that John departs from the Synoptics in significant ways. John’s gospel is a mix of history and theological insight, with the author telling Jesus’ story his own way. As Keener notes:

The consistent direction of many of the above changes [in John] … appear to be deliberately rhetorical and especially theological More importantly, John highlights some theological points by these surprising variations (although, again, these features need not be incompatible with historical detail as well). That is, we find here not random accidents or mistakes but a consistent and therefore deliberate adaptation.[166] 

Despite these changes, an examination of John’s gospel shows substantial overlap and strong coherence with the Synoptics. Its kinship with the Synoptics is evident.[167] Moreover, if the primary source behind John’s Gospel was an eyewitness, as most Johannine scholars affirm, then he would have been in the best position to recount Jesus’ life and ministry. 

4.11. Literary Techniques

Like other ancient biographers, the Gospel authors employed various literary devices in their biographies of Jesus. Michael Licona has written an excellent book surveying this subject, “Why Are Their Differences In The Gospels?: What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography” (2016). As an alternative, I highly recommend watching Licona’s talk on Youtube, “Why are there Differences in the Gospels?”, to learn more about how the Evangelists employed literary devices in their Gospels. It is a very enlightening watch!

5. Acts of the Apostles

After discussing the Gospels as ancient biographies, we can now turn to our discussion on Acts of the Apostles. In this section, we will examine Acts as a work of ancient historiography, as well as the question of authorship in particular.

5.1. Acts as Ancient Historiography

The consensus of scholars today is that Acts belongs to the genre of ancient historiography, which aims to recount real events in the past.[168] If a biography is focused on a person’s life and character, historiography is more focused on a single topic and often involves many people.

Looking at Acts, the focus of the work is not on a single individual but a single topic, the early Christian Church. In recounting the history of the early Church, the narrative of Acts involves many people — the apostles generally but especially Peter and Paul.

Acts of the Apostles is also the second volume of a two-volume work, Luke-Acts. The gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles are dedicated to the same patron, Theophilus. Both works display clear continuity as evidenced by the beginning of Acts: “In my former book, Theophilus…” (Acts 1:1).

Luke’s gospel has a preface and the preface to a two-volume work could cover both volumes. This is probably the case for Luke’s preface (Lk 1:1-4).[169] Luke’s preface, as mentioned earlier, is similar to what one finds in works of ancient historiography.

As mentioned earlier, most scholars affirm that Luke-Acts was written by Luke, a traveling companion of Paul. Since Luke was a traveling companion of Paul and a member of the Jesus movement at an early period (in the 50s AD, possibly earlier), he was in a favorable position to garner information from eyewitnesses and other reliable sources about the history of the early Church, as well as from Paul regarding his own experiences. As an eyewitness to some of the events in Acts (the “we” material), Luke was also in the best position to write about those events. Overall, Luke has great credentials to write a history of the early Church like Acts.

6. Conclusion

Ultimately, the evidence points to the Gospels and Acts being generally reliable historical sources. When it comes to the Gospels, multiple reasons support this conclusion.

  1. The Gospels are full-length early empire biographies written within living memory of the events they recount. This makes their preservation of substantial historical information likely.

  2. The traditioning community was led by eyewitnesses.

  3. The leaders of the traditioning community were not only eyewitnesses, they were also disciples, who must have worked hard from the beginning to preserve their mentor’s legacy and teachings. As Keener notes, transmission through disciples was “one of ancient memory’s most careful forms of transmission”.[170]

  4. By the standards of oral tradition, the time frame between Jesus’s ministry and any of the first century Gospels is quite brief. The oral tradition that made it into the Gospels classifies as recent oral tradition, which tends to be well-preserved and not significantly altered. 

  5. Given the time frame between Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Gospels, the Gospels cannot have been significantly (more than a few decades) later than those sources they used. The authors of the Gospels were in a better position than we are today to assess the reliability of their sources, and they likely had good reason to trust and use them for their biographies of Jesus.

  6. The Gospel authors display a solid intention of reliability in the way they adapted their sources. Matthew and Luke drew from Mark and Q more conservatively than most of their peers writing biographic and historical works. If Matthew and Luke draw from their sources responsibly where we can test them, we should expect them to do so where we cannot test them.

  7. Luke affirms the accuracy of the written accounts about Jesus prior to his own work (Lk 1:1-2). One of these works is undoubtedly Mark. The fact that Luke praises the accuracy of Mark as a member of the Jesus movement at an early period (the 50s AD, possibly earlier) and a traveling companion of Paul, reflects well on Mark’s gospel. Luke’s comments also indicate the stability of traditions about Jesus within the early Church over time. In addition to Luke, John the Elder independently affirms the accuracy of Mark’s gospel.

In light of the evidence, Keener concludes:

[The historical evidence] suggests a significant a priori probability in favor of at least a core of genuine historical information behind the average account in the Gospels … a more historically probable starting point is that these biographies written within living memory of Jesus do in fact succeed in preserving many of Jesus’s acts and teachings, even for many events that are not independently attested in multiple sources.

In any case, I believe that my two most essential primary points are difficult to dispute: in the early empire, normal biographers writing full works about recent figures attempted to recount or reconstruct what they believed to be historical information (or perhaps in some cases, traditions that were at least possibly historical), normally for edifying purposes; and biographers could exercise a degree of flexibility in how they recounted that information.

More precisely, audiences from the Gospels’ era did not expect biographers to freely invent events, but they did allow them to flesh out scenes and discourse for the purpose of what they considered narrative verisimilitude. Biographers were not supposed to invent a teacher’s message, but they could interpret and communicate it from their own perspectives. If biographies of recent figures in the early empire normally recount genuine historical events, then this expectation follows, to a reasonable degree of probability, for the Gospels.[171]

In the end, we have very good reason to believe that a historical core lies behind the average account in the Gospels. This applies to events that are attested by a single source as well (only in Mark or Q or M or L or J).[172] Unless there is good reason to believe otherwise, the basic attitude towards events in the Gospels should be one of trust, since full-length early empire biographies about recent figures normally recounted genuine historical information. 

Moving on from the Gospels to Acts, Acts is a work of ancient historiography that was written by an author who was a traveling companion of Paul and a member of the Jesus movement in the 50s AD (possibly earlier). Based on the information in Acts, Luke was well-positioned to garner information from eyewitnesses and other reliable sources about the history of the early Church, as well as from Paul regarding his own experiences. Luke was also in the best position to write the “we” sections in Acts since he was an eyewitness to those events.

Like the Gospels, we have significant good reason to believe that a historical core lies behind the average account in Acts. Unless there is good reason to believe otherwise, our basic attitude towards events in Acts should be one of trust as well.

To proceed to part two of this series, click here.


  1. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 74-76.
  2. Powell, Acts, pg. 37
  3. Many scholars doubt traditional authorship for each gospel but the external evidence we have for traditional authorship (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John writing our Gospels) is strong and unanimous.

    The early Church fathers are unanimous that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John wrote our Gospels. There are also no competing traditions to these authors. All surviving ancient manuscripts attribute the Gospels to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John as well.

    The theory that the Gospels were formally anonymous works is based on (no exaggeration!) zero hard evidence. Yes, the Gospels are internally anonymous in the sense that the authors do not identify themselves within the main body of text but this does not mean that they were formally anonymous (originally published with no authorship attribution) or that no one knew who wrote them.

    In recent years, scholar Simon Gathercole published a paper, “The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels” (2018), that decisively refuted the main argument in favor of formal anonymity – that the Gospels are formally anonymous because their authors do not identify themselves within the main body of text. In his paper, Gathercole showed that it was extremely common for authors of ancient biographies to not identify themselves within the main body of the text but elsewhere (e.g. title above the main body of the work, in the capitula list, a running header, etc). We have over one hundred surviving biographies written between the mid-second century BC and the late fourth century AD, and all of them are internally anonymous except two! When it comes to ancient biographies, internal anonymity is not evidence for formal anonymity. Internal anonymity was standard in the genre.

    Having said that, if the external evidence points firmly towards traditional authorship, how do New Testament scholars deal with this? They substantially undervalue the external evidence and base their conclusions on internal evidence. There is certainly good internal evidence for traditional authorship as well but it is the substantial undervaluing of external evidence that gives scholars greater room to come to non-traditional conclusions when weighing the evidence for authorship.

    This is one significant difference between New Testament scholarship and the study of the classics. In the study of the classics, external evidence, such as attestation of authorship by later writers, is accepted as good evidence for the authorship of any particular text. If the Gospels were judged by the same standards as other ancient works, traditional authorship would be affirmed much more across the board. In New Testament studies, however, the Gospels are treated with higher levels of scrutiny and suspicion since they contain miraculous and supernatural elements. This suspicion of the Gospels extends to the early Church fathers, since they belong to the Christian tradition. Due to attitudes such as these in the field, Pope Benedict XVI rightly commented in his Erasmus Lecture that “the debate about modern exegesis is not at its core a debate among historians, but among philosophers”.

    When it comes to the undervaluing of external evidence in New Testament studies, scholar D.A. Carson notes in his commentary of John (The Gospel According to John, pg. 69):

    “Most scholars of antiquity, were they assessing the authorship of some other document, could not so easily set aside evidence as plentiful, consistent and plainly tied to the source as is the external evidence that supports Johannine authorship. The majority of contemporary biblical scholars do not rest nearly as much weight on external evidence as do their colleagues in classical scholarship.”

    Carson’s comment here apply not only to John but all four Gospels. As I mentioned earlier, traditional authorship is unanimously affirmed by the early Church fathers.

    Likewise, scholar R.T. France notes in his commentary on Matthew (The Gospel of Matthew, pg 84):

    Attribution of this gospel to Matthew the apostle goes back to our earliest surviving patristic testimonies, and there is no evidence that any other author was ever proposed. As far back as we can trace it, and from the earliest manuscript attributions that have survived, it is always the Gospel kata Matthaion. It often seems to be assumed that whatever the early church said about the origins of the NT books must be treated with suspicion unless it can be independently proved, but I do not share that assumption.”

    Ultimately, as scholar Martin Hengel commented on his peers who rejected traditional authorship and affirmed formal anonymity for the Gospels: (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, pg. 55):

    “Let those who deny the great age and therefore the basic originality of the Gospel superscriptions in order to preserve their “good” critical conscience give a better explanation of the completely unanimous and relatively early attestation of these titles, their origin and the names of the authors associated with them. Such an explanation has yet to be given, and it never will be.”

    If Mark, Matthew, Luke and John did write the Gospels, and a skeptical scholar is surprised to learn this when he meets God in heaven, God would be justified in saying “the evidence was there all along!”.  

    Although Christians are not required to affirm traditional authorship, they are on good grounds in affirming it for all four Gospels. There is good internal and external evidence and testimony of the early Church fathers in particular is quite early and unanimous.

    As for the question of dating, it must be noted that the standard dating is based on an anti-supernaturalist assumption – that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Jersusalem Temple in 70 AD. According to many New Testament scholars, since Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Temple, the predictions of Jesus in his Olivet Discourse (Mk 13; Lk 21; Matt 24 and 25) must be “predictions after the fact” or predictions made when such an event was foreseeable by the earliest Gospel author through natural means. This means that Mark, widely believed to be the first gospel, must have been written after the destruction of the Temple during or shortly after 70 AD (70-75 AD), or shortly before it, when the destruction of the Temple was foreseeable (65-70 AD). Interestingly, the largest contingent of scholars believe Mark was written shortly before 70 AD (65-70 AD) — the standard dating for Mark more broadly is 65-75 AD but in discussions the midpoint of 70 AD is typically pegged.

    The problem with the reasoning for the standard dating is that the destruction of the Temple is never mentioned as a past event in any of the Gospels. Furthermore, the Gospels provide odd details if the Temple had already been destroyed at the time the Gospels were written. In his gospel, Mark exhorts his readers to pray that the Temple’s destruction would not occur in winter (Mk 13:18). On the other hand, Matthew urges his readers to pray that it would not occur during winter or on a Sabbath (Matt 24:20).

    Why would Mark tell his readers to pray for it not to happen in the winter if he already knew that the Romans destroyed the Temple in the late summer? Likewise, why would Matthew tell his readers to pray for it not happen in the winter or on a Sabbath if the event had already happened?

    Of course, the main flaw of the reasoning behind the standard dating is that it presupposes that Jesus could not have predicted the destruction of the Temple. But what if Jesus is who Christians say He is? What if Jesus is God Incarnate — “the Word made flesh” (Jhn 1:13)? If Jesus is God then of course, such a prediction would not be implausible at all.

    In addition to supernaturalist explanations, there are also arguments put forward for Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple on secular (non-supernaturalist) grounds, though I won’t get into those arguments here. This end note is long enough as it is!

    In any case, if one adopts an open philosophy (miracles are possible) rather than a ready-made Kantian philosophy (miracles are impossible), or if one accepts secular arguments for Jesus prediction the destruction of the Temple, then the dating for the Gospels open up. The Gospels may have been written between 30 AD–95 AD. This also affects conclusions for dating — one reason for doubting traditional authorship for Matthew and John is that it is unlikely that they would have been alive in the period 80-95 AD, since this was the period when eyewitnesses were becoming scarce within the early Church (as you can see, assumptions affect scholarly reconstructions in major ways).

    I personally affirm traditional authorship for all four Gospels. I think the internal and external evidence for Mark, Matthew, Luke and John writing our Gospels is solid. I also believe that at least some of the Gospels were written before 70 AD. It is hard for me to believe that that forty year period (30-70 AD) was absent of any Gospel composition. With that said, as a Christian, I have no problem assuming the standard dating or prominent scholarly views on authorship (as I do in this two-part series) because a strong case for the reliability of the Gospels can be made while adopting these views. I also see assuming prominent views in New Testament scholarship as a good way to “meet skeptics halfway” — working with their assumptions and dialouging from there.

    I have to say though, if I were a skeptic, I would be troubled by the fact that critical scholarly views on the dating and authorship of the Gospels, which give skeptics a lot of leeway in their reconstructions of the past pertaining to the historical Jesus and the early Church, lie on weak foundations. Non-traditional views on authorship run counter to the unanimous testimony of the early Church fathers and the theory of the Gospels being formally anonymous is based on zero hard evidence. On the other hand, the standard dating on the Gospels is based on an anti-supernaturalist philosophical presupposition. If I were a skeptic, these foundations for my views on authorship and dating would not give me confidence and security. Furthermore, as a hypothetical skeptic, if I were to assume the traditional authorship and earlier datings, then it would entail major difficulties on my end.

    If some of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John), how would I, as a skeptic, account for the events reported in these Gospels? Would I be willing to rest on faith that they were lying when it comes to their affirmation of events that challenge my worldview?

    Likewise, if any of the Gospels were written earlier than the standard dating, particularly between 30-60 AD, can I still remain confident in my belief that the events in the Gospels do not reflect the testimony of the eyewitnesses? Due to Paul’s letters we know that the disciples held key leadership positions within the early Church into the 50s AD (Gal  2:9, 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Cor 9:5). We also have strong evidence from Christian and Jewish sources that leading figures of the early Church — Peter, James the Just, and Paul, were marytred in the 60s AD (ca. 62 AD for James and ca. 64 AD for Peter and Paul). For these reasons, New Testament scholars view the period 30 AD – 60 AD as “the period of the eyewitnesses”. We know that many eyewitnesses were alive during this period. If any of the Gospels were written between 30-60 AD, then that is strong evidence in favor of the conclusion that their contents are in line with the testimony of eyewitnesses. A 30-60 AD dating means that we have biographies of Jesus written during the time of Paul’s missionary journeys (as recorded in Acts) or even earlier!

    To the Christian, a dating of 70-95 AD for the Gospels is non-problematic. The Gospels may have been written during this period and a strong case can still be made for their reliability. To the skeptic, however, a dating of at least one of the Gospels within 30-60 AD is much more problematic — given that the disciples of Jesus held key leadership positions within the early Church during this period. If any of the Gospels were written within 30-60 AD then that aids the Christian side with major ammo in historical reconstruction — making it very likely likely that the contents of that gospel or those gospels are in line with the testimony of the eyewitnesses.

    More can be said on the question of authorship and dating. For those who are interested in looking into this further, I suggest picking up Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus. I also recommend readers to check out my blog post, Advances in New Testament Studies, for a good introduction into New Testament studies and summary of the developments in the field.
  4. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg. 201
  5. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 27
  6. Ibid, pg. 32
  7. Ibid, pg. 221
  8. Ibid, pg. 221
  9. Ibid, pg. 222
  10. Ibid, pg. 68
  11. Ibid, pg. 69-70
  12. Ibid, pg. 53-54
  13. Ibid, pg. 77
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid, pg. 78
  16. Ibid, pgs. 102-103
  17. Ibid, pg. 91
  18. Ibid, pg. 96
  19. Ibid, pgs. 36 and 38
  20. Ibid, pg. 157
  21. Ibid, pg. 151 
  22. Ibid, pg. 112
  23. Ibid, pg. 244
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid, pg. 208
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid, pg. 209
  28. Ibid, pg. 478
  29. Ibid, pg. 479
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid, pg. 241
  32. Ibid, pg. 252-255
  33. Ibid, pg. 252
  34. Ibid, pg. 255
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid, pg. 303
  38. Ibid, pg. 311
  39. Ibid, pg. 387
  40. Ibid, pg. 119
  41. Ibid, pg. 67
  42. Ibid, pg. 77
  43. Ibid, pg. 209
  44. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7
  45. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 477
  46. Ibid, pg. 366
  47. Ibid, pg. 255
  48. Ibid, pg. 366
  49. Ibid, pg. 477
  50. Ibid, pg. 242
  51. Mike Licona. The Gospels are Historically Reliable: 6 Reasons. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxxhY8ueo7c
  52. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels, loc. 512
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 483
  56. Ibid, pg. 477
  57. Dunn, Christianity in the Making Volume 1: Jesus Remembered, pg. 159
  58. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 424
  59. Ibid, pg. 370
  60. Ibid, pg. 442
  61. Ibid, pg. 423
  62. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, pg. 149
  63. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 443
  64. Ibid, pg. 430
  65. Ibid, pg. 426
  66. Ibid, pg. 423-424
  67. Ibid, pg. 416
  68. Ibid, pg. 448
  69. Ibid, pg. 428
  70. Ibid, pg. 427
  71. Ibid, pg. 428
  72. Ibid, pg. 427
  73. Ibid, pg. 414
  74. Ibid, pg. 437
  75. Ibid, pg. 448
  76. Ibid, pg. 302
  77. Ibid, pg. 448. Keener is conservative in his conclusion despite thinking that there is more reason to believe that the disciples of Jesus had greater reason to preserve his deeds and teachings well than other ancient disciples in antiquity: “Apostles and tradents who staked their lives on the message of Jesus obviously had deep interest in it. These long-term memories were not a mere matter of random recollections. As Samuel Byrskog notes, ‘Since Jesus was a qualitatively unique teacher, it must have been generally essential to transmit his words and deeds’ (emphasis his). In chapter 15 I compare them to other ancient disciples, but ultimately they had more reason, not less reason, than disciples of other teachers to transmit carefully their master’s words and deeds. As noted earlier, perspectives are inevitable, and in this case, far from their faith in Jesus as Lord invalidating their perspective, it shaped their perspective for the very reason that the disciples preserved and propagated his teaching widely to begin with, despite the enormous cost. Even disciples of other teachers normally preserved their teachers’ message; they did not, however, always stake their lives on its propagation, as most of Jesus’s disciples ultimately seemed ready to do” (Christobiography, pgs. 396-397).
  78. Ibid, pg. 365
  79. Ibid, pg. 400
  80. Ibid, pg. 390
  81. Ibid, pg. 367
  82. Ibid, pg. 393
  83. Ibid
  84. Ibid, pgs. 394-395
  85. Keener, The Reliability of the Gospels, par. 15. Retrieved from: https://influencemagazine.com/practice/the-reliability-of-the-gospels
  86. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 395
  87. Licona, Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?
  88. Ibid, pg. 397
  89. Ibid. pg. 398
  90. Ibid, pgs. 396-397. As Keener notes on the effect of interest on memory: “Interest motivates memory in both literate 179 and illiterate persons. Swazi herdsmen, for example, with normal memories on other matters, could readily and nearly precisely recite verifiable details of cattle purchases that they had merely witnessed a year earlier. 180 Illiterate !Kung bushmen and doctoral-level ethnographers who interview them each may remember what the other finds impossible to recall; different cultures value and develop memory skills for different subjects” (Christobiography, pg. 396).
  91. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 373
  92. Ibid, pg. 374
  93. Ibid, pgs. 376-380, 382-385, 398-400
  94. Ibid, pg. 378
  95. Ibid, pg. 380
  96. Ibid, pg. 379
  97. Ibid, pg. 382-383
  98. Ibid, pg. 383
  99. Ibid, pg. 391
  100. Ibid, pg. 399
  101. Ibid, pg. 398
  102. Ibid, pg. 400
  103. Ibid, pg. 399
  104. Ibid, pg. 400
  105. Ibid, pg. 399
  106. Ibid, pg. 402
  107. Ibid.
  108. Ibid, pg. 366
  109. Ibid, pg. 402-403
  110. Ibid, pg. 403
  111. Ibid, pgs. 419-420
  112. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7
  113. Based on extant historical writings, we know of a number of individuals who knew the eyewitnesses as being alive during this period. These include St. Luke the Evangelist, Clement of Rome and Polycarp.

    Assuming John the Elder is John the Apostle or another disciple of Jesus, we may also add Papias to this list. Given that Clement was ordained by Peter himself, it is highly likely this his predecessor as bishop of Rome, Anacletus, also knew St. Peter and was ordained by him as well. Another possible candidate of a person who had contact the eyewitnesses would be Ignatius of Antioch.

    We know this much based on limited information from antiquity. Certainly, there were many others who we do not know about, especially since some eyewitnesses were still alive during this period (e.g. John the Apostle and Simeon).

    Clement’s epistle to the Romans (ca. 80-95) also assumes that there are still living leaders of the Christian churches who had been appointed by the apostles of Jesus (1 Clem. 5.1, 42, 44).
  114. St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome, was succeeded by Linus and Clement (most probably Anacletus as well), whom he ordained personally. Polycarp, who was instructed by John the Apostle, would go on to become bishop of Smyrna, Turkey. Assuming John the Elder is John the Apostle, Papias would also go on to become bishop of Hierapolis. Clement’s epistle to the Romans (ca. 80-95) also assumes that there are still living leaders of the Christian churches who had been appointed by the apostles (1 Clem. 5.1, 42, 44). Of course, people who had contact with the eyewitnesses would go on to assume leadership positions within the early Church!
  115. Mike Licona. Who wrote the Gospel of Mark? Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TMY3VI-K9U&t=458s. Was Peter Mark’s Source for the Gospel of Mark? Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbBcwb8wtVk. Pelletier’s study is not released yet but I am going to be conservative and assume that his results show a “slight majority” in favor of Markan authorship since Mike Licona and Nick Peters did a survey on the subject (sampling of 75 critical scholars) a few years ago and this was their result. Pelletier is Licona’s student and he volunteered to continue Licona and Peter’s research on the topic.
  116. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 306
  117. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 227
  118. Ibid, pg. 403
  119. Pitre, The Case for Jesus, pg. 76 (PDF)
  120. Keener, The Gospel of John, pg. 101
  121. Ibid. pg. 83
  122. Charlesworth, Disciple, 197–211
  123. Keener, The Gospel of John, pg. 83. See also the rest of the chapters discussion.
  124. Ibid, pgs. 224-225
  125. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, pg. 28
  126. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 226.
  127. Keener, Acts, pgs. 17-18
  128. Ibid, pg. 226-227
  129. Ibid, pg. 229
  130. Ibid, pg. 228
  131. Ibid, pg. 227
  132. Ibid pg. 228 as well as Keener, Gospel truth — Luke 1:1-4, par. 8. Retrieved from: https://craigkeener.com/gospel-truth-luke-11-4/. The content of the quote in the latter source is of course, also mentioned in Christobiography — but I preferred the phrasing in this article better. 
  133. Ibid, pg. 410
  134. Ibid, pg. 228
  135. Ibid, pg. 229-230
  136. Ibid, pg. 230. 
  137. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition, pg. 42 
  138. Keener, Christobiograpghy, pg. 474. 
  139. McIver, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 3754
  140. Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 61-66 (PDF)
  141. Rhodes Eddy, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 4307-4417
  142. Keener, Christobiograpghy, pg. 455
  143. Ibid, pg. 480
  144. Ibid, pg. 462-465
  145. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition, pg. 42
  146. Rhodes Eddy, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, loc. 4396
  147. Ibid.
  148. Keener, Christobiography, pg. 410
  149. Ibid, pg. 470
  150. Ibid, pg. 466
  151. Ibid, pg. 467
  152. Ibid, pg. 467-468
  153. Ibid, pg. 468
  154. Ibid, pg. 466
  155. Ibid, pg. 453
  156. Ibid, pg. 468
  157. Ibid.
  158. Ibid, pg. 231
  159. Ibid, pgs. 442 and 484
  160. Ibid, pg. 263
  161. Ibid, pgs. 154-155
  162. Ibid, pgs. 326
  163. Ibid, pg. 326
  164. Ibid, pg. 264
  165. Keener, The Gospel of John.
  166. Keener, Christobiography, pgs. 353
  167. Craig Keener, John’s Gospel in Historical Jesus Research. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWLU4O7VEYg
  168. Ibid, pg. 222
  169. Ibid, pg. 224
  170. Ibid, pg. 302
  171. Ibid, pgs. 497, 499-500.
  172. Ibid, pg. 497

Responding to the “Colonizer Jesus vs. Historical Jesus” Meme

A week ago, a friend of mine sent me this meme comparing “Colonizer Jesus” and “Historical Jesus” and told me that it was spreading among his friends. After hearing that, I felt like it was worth responding to and decided to write a blog post about it. So here it is!

There’s a lot to respond to in this meme, and the statements on both columns, “Colonizer Jesus” and “Historical Jesus”, also reveal a lot about the maker of the meme, who is undoubtedly a liberal (I do respect liberals, and have many liberal friends whom I love but I respectfully disagree with them on several issues!).

The concise Christian response to this meme is that there’s only one Jesus Christians worship and that’s the Jesus of the gospels. The Jesus of the gospels is not “Colonizer Jesus” and neither is He “Historical Jesus”. Both portraits of Jesus in the meme contain errors. A number of statements in “Colonizer Jesus” are also true . I am also uneasy about some of the true statements made in “Historical Jesus” such as “friend of sinners & outcasts” and “critiques religious people” because although they are true, I suspect there are behind these statements, unstated erroneous understandings of Jesus. 

So in the end, I will relate the two Jesus’ of this meme to the real Jesus — the Jesus of the gospels. As a Christian, I will respond to this meme on thirteen points — clarifying, affirming and debunking different statements in it.

1. “White”

Christians know that Jesus isn’t white but it’s typical for artworks to depict individuals according to their culture. This is why Christian artwork in Korea or Japan will depict Jesus with Asian characteristics while Christian artwork in Africa will portray Jesus with dark skin.

 An artwork, after all, is typically created to cater to the culture it was produced in. It has to be relatable with the people, its audience. As a result, artists around the world have taken liberties to change Jesus’ appearance to better match their culture.

In the case of Europeans living in the Middle Ages in particular, can we really fault them for portraying Jesus as white if they, and virtually everyone around them, was Caucasian? In addition to what I’ve said already, people in the Middle Ages also did not have the privilege of travelling around the world like we do and they didn’t possess the degree of familiarity we have about other cultures. Globalization didn’t occur yet and people were enclosed in their own cultural bubbles.

2. “Patriotic

I don’t understand why the maker of the meme makes this into an issue, mentioning “patriotic” as though it were a bad thing. Patriotism, loving and appreciating your nation, is a good thing and Jesus was patriotic. 

As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus loved the Jewish nation. He was also well aware of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and that the Jew’s were God’s chosen people. This is why Jesus chose Twelve apostles for His inner circle, to represent the Twelve tribes of Israel. It is also why Jesus’ priority during His ministry was to reach out to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 10:5-6) before ordering his disciples to reach out to the Gentiles at a later time. Jesus’ Messianic mission initially prioritized the Jews, His own people, for it was to these people that the covenantal promises were first made. 

Lk:7-10 is another passage that indicates Jesus’ patriotism. In the passage, Jewish Elders successfully persuade Jesus to go to a centurion’s house and heal his servant. How did they persuade Jesus? They told him that the centurion “loves our nation, and he is the one who built our synagogues”. In this passage, Jesus was positively moved by the love and service this man had for the Jewish people. 

Other passages also indicate Jesus’ love and appreciation for His nation.

In Jhn 4:22, Jesus tells a pagan woman that “salvation is from the Jews”, since God chose to reveal Himself first to the Jewish people. Salvation is then the gift of the Jews to the world because it is through the Jews that man came to know God and enter into a relationship with Him. 

In Matt 23:37-39, Jesus laments the hypocrisy and hard hearts of the Jewish religious leadership. This lamentation (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…”)  stems from a love and concern for His native land and its people.

Of course, this does not mean that Jesus only cared about his own people, Jesus cared about all men. This is why He preached a love that was total, radical and universal in scope (Mk 12:29-31, Matt 5:43-48, Jhn 13:34 and Lk 10:25-37) and instructed His disciples to spread the gospel to “all nations” (Matt 28:19-20). However, it is also clear that Jesus loved the Jewish people. He was patriotic. If He weren’t, then He’d be a lousy Jewish Messiah.

3. “Jewish”

Of course Jesus was a Jew but the movement He founded eventually broke away from second temple Judaism.

Christianity differed from Judaism in belief and practice (Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah and God Incarnate, believed that they were bound by a new covenant established by Jesus, which fulfilled the old covenant of Moses, had their own sacred writings in the New Testament, etc). By and large, early Christians also began establishing and attending their own places of worship.

Yes, Jesus and the disciples were Jews but for theological and historical reasons, the early Christians began to identify themselves not as Jews but as members of a movement that followed Jesus.[1] When this happened, the parting of ways had begun.

The meme says that Jesus was a “Jew” as if this were a striking fact but it isn’t. Christians, of course, know about this, just as they know that Jesus was a brown Middle-Eastern man. The Christian response to this part of the meme is “Of course, nothing new here”.

4. “Died For Your Sins”

Jesus did die for our sins. This is essential to Christian belief and it’s right there in the New Testament (1 Cor 15:3, Gal 2:20 and Jhn 3:16). Jesus’ sacrifice is also properly understood in the context of Jewish culture and history, in which animals were sacrificed to atone for sin (Lev 4:35). This practice was well-known and ubiquitous. This is why John, knowing that Jesus died for sins, equated Jesus to a lamb in his gospel (Jhn 1:29).

Jesus dying for our sins is also embedded in the narrative of the New Testament. Jesus Himself predicted His death in the gospels several times (Mk 9:30-32; 10:32-34; 14:3-9) and as He told Peter, this had to happen (Mk 8:31-33). He knew what His mission was and it was to “give His life for the ransom of many” (Matt 20:28). This explains His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mk 14:22-24), His agony at Gethsemane (Lk 22:39-43), His lack of resistance during His arrest (Matt 26:47-56), His calm and silence during the trial (Mk 14:53-63) and one of His final words on the cross: “It is finished” (Jhn 19:30).

If Jesus didn’t die for our sins, then the gospel becomes incomprehensible.

5. “Friends of sinners and outcasts”

Jesus was certainly a friend to sinners and outcasts but he reached out to these individuals precisely to lead them away from sin. As Jesus said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32). This intention of Jesus is also well expressed in His Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matt 18:12-14), in which a shepherd leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to look for one sheep that lost his way. 

So yes, Jesus loved sinners BUT He did not approve of sin. He guided others, gently but firmly, away from sin.  As Jesus told the adulterous woman: “Now go and sin no more” (Jhn 8:11). 

Now why did Jesus guide people away from sin? He did so precisely because He loved them. Sin harms the soul and to love means to will the good of the beloved, including and especially his or her soul. This is why it is loving to guide others away from sin. It is done out of concern for others — with their spiritual well-being in mind. 

6. “Endorses Church and State”

Jesus did endorse “Church and State”.

Jesus Himself founded one Church, the Catholic Church, on St. Peter and His apostles. Jesus also promised that this Church would be guided and protected until the end of time:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:16-19).

First, Jesus renames Simon as Peter in the passage. Name changes in the Bible are significant and indicate a new purpose or vocation God has for that individual. For example, God renamed Abram (“Father”) to Abraham (“Father of Nations”) because He intended Him to be the Father of the Jewish people. Afterwards, God blesses Abraham and Sarah with Isaac and the rest is, well, history. Likewise, Jesus renames Simon to Peter (“Rock”) because he intends Peter to be the rock or foundation of His Church: “you are rock (Peter), and on this rock I will build my Church”. 

Second, Jesus gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” as well as the power to “bind and loose”. When Jesus does this, He is recalling Isaiah 22:20-23, in which Eliakim is named the royal steward. In Isaiah 22:20-23, Eliakim is told that he was being given “the keys of the kingdom” and that whatever he “close[s], no man will open” and that whatever he “open[s] no man will close”.  In ancient Israel, the royal steward was second in command to the King. It was his duty to take care of the Kingdom while the King was away. In Matthew 16, by giving Peter the keys, Jesus, the Messianic Davidic King, names Peter His Royal Steward, making Peter in charge of His Church in His absence. By giving Peter the authority to “bind and loose” (mirroring the opening and the closing of doors in Isaiah 22:20-23), Jesus is also giving Peter administrative power. “Binding and loosing” were common words among rabbis and judges. Binding refers to the ability to make laws while loosing meant the ability to release others from laws. Ultimately, in these verses, Jesus establishes the Petrine office, or the Papacy. As Steve Ray, a teacher of biblical studies and well-known convert to Catholic Christianity, notes:

After establishing Peter as the ‘Rock’, Jesus promises to give Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” – a reference to the steward’s keys in Isaiah 22. The Davidic throne had been vacant since the Babylonian captivity (586 BC). The archangel Gabriel announced to Mary her Son Jesus would be given ‘the throne of his father David’ (Lk 1:42). As Jesus, the new King of Israel, re-established the Davidic throne he appointed Peter to the office of royal steward to rule ‘over the house’ of the king (cf. CCC 553). Keys represent exclusive dominion and this authority was granted to Peter alone. The office of royal steward was successive in Israel. Familiar with their history, the Jews certainly understand that the office of Peter would be filled by successors as was the royal steward’s office in Judah. The steward may die, but the office continues”.[2]

Unlike Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church can trace itself back to St. Peter and the apostles through apostolic succession, an unbroken line of succession from St. Peter (the first bishop of Rome) to Pope Francis (the current bishop of Rome and 266th successor of St. Peter). She is Christ’s one true Church.

Jesus also endorsed the State. He recognizes the authority of Caesar and the duty of the citizenry to pay taxes to the State (Mk 12:16-17).

7. “A King”

Jesus certainly is a King! The Messiah in the Old Testament is depicted as possessing three offices — King (Jer 23:5, Mic 5:2, Isa 9:6 and Zech 9:9), High Priest and Prophet. Jesus is all three.

When it comes to Jesus being a King, check out the Bible. In the New Testament, the angel Gabriel tells Mary at the Annunciation) that the “Lord God will give” her son “the throne of his father David and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk 1:26-38). Shortly after Jesus was born, the wise men paid their respects to Him — the King of the Jews (Matt 2: 1-2). King Herod, on the other hand, wanted to kill Jesus because he saw him as a political rival (Matt 2:3-7;12). During Jesus’ ministry, Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven (Matt 16:16-19), recalling Isaiah 22:20-23, and naming Peter His royal steward. During Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, He is portrayed as King by the gospel writers, who mention the Messianic prophecy fulfilled by the event (Matt 21:1-11). Jesus as King is also mentioned many other times during the Passion narrative: the Jews and Jesus talking with Pilate (Jhn 19:12 and Jhn 18:33-36), Roman soldiers making a “crown of thorns” for Jesus after His scourging and affixing it to his head to mock Him (Mk 15:17-19), the sign above Jesus’ cross (Mk 15:26) and the taunting by onlookers (Mk 15:32).  

8. “Sends sinners to hell”

To start, I want to point out that the existence and eternity of hell is explicitly affirmed by the Bible and particularly, Jesus Himself (Mk 9:43-47, Matt 5:22; 7:13; 10:28; 23:33, 25:1-46, Lk 16:19-31 and Jhn 5:29).

If we end up in hell though, then that’s because of us, not God. God only hands out justice — whatever we deserve. If we live a life that is a “yes” to God and His laws, then we go to Heaven. If we live a life that is a “no” to God and His laws, then we go to hell. In short, we choose our eternal destiny. As C.S. Lewis says:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened”.[3]

Man is created with an immortal soul and is destined for eternity, particularly, to be in God’s full presence in Heaven and share in His Love (CCC 1023-1024; 1028). However, since God respects man’s free will, He allows the possibility for man to reject Him and spend eternity away from Him. Heaven and hell are logical end-states of our decisions in life. Heaven is the state of being in God’s full presence (the “beatific vision”) while Hell is a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God” (CCC 1033). Those who accept God and follow His laws choose Heaven and those who reject God and His laws choose hell.

Once we die, our souls become fixed on a final end that is either God or not God (i.e. sin over God). Although the orientation of a man’s soul can shift or “correct course” during his or her life, it becomes fixed upon death. God gives man sufficient grace and opportunity to repent during his or her life but upon death, this ends, and he or she will be judged. 

A lot more can be said on the subject of salvation and hell. I’ll discuss these topics further in a future post. I’ll say this though, yes, the Church teaches that non-Christians can be saved, see Lumen Gentium, no. 16.

9. “Critiques Religious People”

Yes, Jesus did criticize religious people, particularly, the Pharisees, but he did not do so because He disagreed with their moral teachings, He did so because they were hypocrites (Matt 23:13-32).

Of course, we Christians can also be significant hypocrites, and if we are, then we deserve to be called out in fraternal correction for our shortcomings so we can become better Christians.

Setting aside the hypocritical behavior of the Pharisees, Jesus did affirm their moral teachings (Matt 23:1-3). This is why he instructed his audience to do as they preach and not as they do. Jesus also respected their religious position: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach”. Jesus, as a devout Jew, also preached adherence to the ten commandments (Matt 19:18-21).

10. “Subverts Empire

I completely agree. Jesus did subvert the Empire He was born in. It’s one of the most striking aspects about Christianity. Its founder died in a lowly and embarrassing manner — crucifixion. It was also a kind of death that communicated the power of the Roman Empire. Crucifixions were public and served as a sort of billboard, not only advertising the humiliation of the crucified but also the power of the Roman authorities that were putting him or her to death.

Jesus was, in the eyes of the world, thoroughly defeated. Yet in time, as agnostic historian Tom Holland put it, His life and death would “completely upend” the assumptions of the Empire upon which he was born.[4] Although the Romans executed Jesus, His life and death would end up dramatically changing the Empire’s values and theological assumptions. In his book, “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World”, Holland lays out the many ways Christianity radically transformed ancient pagan society, particularly in terms of morals. I also lay out many of these changes in part 4 of my Christianity: Builder of Civilization series.  

In our morals today, we are not Greek or Roman, we are Christian. The Christian revolution transformed our world and it all started with Jesus, who subverted the assumptions of the Empire he was born in. 

11. “Upholds the traditional family unit.”

Jesus does affirm the traditional family unit. Jesus says that marriage is a lifelong and sexually exclusive union between one man and one woman (Mk 10:5-12).

12. “Homeless man and child refugee

Child refugee is right but “homeless man” needs to be clarified. Jesus had a home in Nazareth. His family were not beggars (though they were lower class) and his father, Joseph, was a carpenter. 

During Jesus’ ministry, however, He traveled to a lot of places throughout Palestine. As an itinerant preacher, He relied on the generosity of others during this period. He would stay in the homes of others as a guest as He traveled with His disciples from place to place. Sometimes, however, this was not always possible and He wouldn’t have a place to sleep in (Matt 8:20).

13. “Had half siblings

Jesus didn’t have half-siblings. The “brothers” of Jesus described in the Bible refer to his cousins.

In ancient Jewish context, the Greek word for brother (adelphos) and sister (adelphi) could be used as a synonym for close relatives such as cousins.

Both the gospels and early Christian writers attest that the “brothers” of Jesus were his cousins, particularly, that they were the sons of Joseph’s brother, Clopas, and his wife, who was also named Mary (Mary was a common name during the period. There are, for example, multiple Marys in the gospels). For a detailed explanation on how the brothers of Jesus in the gospels are his cousins see footnote 5.[5]

But sure, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that Jesus had half-siblings, meaning that Joseph and Mary had marital relations after Jesus was born (because “even if” arguments are great). This still would not mean that Jesus endorses the intentional creation of non-traditional family units.

One, as mentioned earlier, Jesus’ teachings on marriage and family are clear (Mk 10:5-12).

Two, in this scenario, Jesus’ half-siblings would not be born out of marriage but within marriage (between Joseph and Mary). As for Jesus, although he was not conceived in the traditional way, His conception was not the result of pre-marital sex or marital infidelity — it was the result of divine intervention. Furthermore, Jesus was intentionally placed in a traditional family unit, with Mary being His biological mother and Joseph (whom God intended to be Mary’s spouse) being His adopted father. Think about it. Jesus could have entered the world through Mary alone. A man is not needed for the Incarnation. Yet, Joseph was still chosen to be Jesus’ adopted father, with God sending an angel to tell Joseph in a dream to take Mary as his wife, and that, through the Holy Spirit, Mary will bear a child, who they would name Jesus (Matt 1:18-25). Here, we see God affirming the traditional family unit, with Jesus being placed under the care of one father and one mother in a lifelong, sexually exclusive union. 


If there’s one good thing that this meme brought about it’s this, it’s important for us to know who the real Jesus is. Today, Jesus can be politicized by different groups of people to promote their ideology or worldview. As a result,  it’s important for us to get our picture of Jesus right by reading the gospels. This way, we will be aware when someone is politicizing Jesus and know the errors in their portrait of Him when they do so.

To guard against the politicization of Jesus, I recommend reading Trent Horn’s book, Counterfeit Christs: Finding the Real Jesus Among the Imposters. This book debunks several common and false portraits of Jesus today. These false portraits make it seem like Jesus supported certain beliefs and ideologies when an understanding of the Jesus of the New Testament shows that He did not.

Before this article ends, there’s one more message I want to communicate, in light of the common perception of Jesus today as an affirming 60s hippie. The real Jesus is incredible (read the gospels and find out!) but contrary to what modern man thinks or wants him to be, He wasn’t easy or convenient. He was demanding and challenging. Jesus urges us to walk the narrow path (Matt 7:13) and encourages us to carry our cross (Lk 9:23). He loves us and calls us to love others radically, and because He was all about love, He would not approve our sins or the sins of others — because He cares about the good of our soul.

References and Footnotes

  1. This portion of the write-up was verified by Faithful Philosophy in personal correspondence. For those who want to learn more on how Christianity broke away from Judaism, see Daniel Boyarin’s paper, The Christian Invention of Judaism (2008).
  2. Steve Ray, “Peter & the Primacy in the New Testament”, par. 5. Retrieved from: https://catholicconvert.com/blog/2020/06/30/peter-the-primacy-in-the-new-testament/
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. 
  4. Cameron Bertuzzi interview with Tom Holland (2021). “Why Science and Secularism Come From Christianity”. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/Lehk-ZSsbpI?t=2409

5. In ancient Jewish context , the Greek word for brother (adelphos) and sister (adelphi) could be used as a synonym for close relatives such as cousins.

Both the gospels and the early Christian writers attest that the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the gospels were his cousins. To begin our discussion, let us look into Matthew’s mention of the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus in Matthew 13:53-57 (though only the brothers are named in this passage):

When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there.  Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed.  “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

Matthew names James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as Jesus’ brothers. 

The gospels, however, also mention that two of these so-called brothers were Jesus’ cousins.  Matthew notes that James and Joseph were sons of another Mary (Matt 27:55-56), who was also present at Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea  (Matt 27:59-61).  John identifies this Mary as “Mary the Wife of Clopas” and mentions her being present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Jhn 19:25). See the following quotes below:

Many women were there [at the cross], watching from a distance.  They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (Matt 27:55-56). 

Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.  He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matt 27:59-61).

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).

As seen in the above verses, the gospels identify two of Jesus’ brothers, James and Joseph, as sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas.  Moreover, John 19:25 is further proof that the gospel writers used “adelphos” and “adelphi” broadly, because it is highly unlikely that Mary would have had another sister named Mary: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas…”.  However, this would not be surprising if Mary the wife of Clopas were a close relative, and as we shall see shortly, Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary the wife of Clopas were sisters in law.

Outside of the New Testament we also have evidence from the early Christian writers regarding “Jesus’ brothers”, illuminating this issue further. 

First, Christian historian Eusebius, draws on an earlier Christian historian, Hegesippus (Hegesippus was the first person to write a “history” of the Church in the 2nd century), who attests that James and Simon (another one the four “brothers of Jesus” in Matt 13:53-57) were cousins of Jesus and states that Simon was the “son of Clopas”. He also says that Simon succeeded James as leader of the Jerusalem Church because like James, he was also a cousin of the Lord. Two, Hegesippus also attests that Clopas was the brother of Joseph. This means that Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary the mother of James, Joseph and Simon were sisters in law.  Three, Hegesippus also says that Judas (another one the four “brothers of Jesus” in Matt 13:53-57) was another cousin of the Lord (as Eusebius says, “another so-called brethren”) and says that he lived a long time, surviving Roman persecution under the reign of Domitian. See the following quotes below:

“After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Simeon (Simon), his cousin, the son of Clopas was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was another cousin of the Lord” (Church History 4.22.4).

“After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem which immediately followed, the story goes that those of the Apostles and of the disciples of the Lord who were still alive came together from every place with those who were, humanly speaking, of the family of the Lord, for many of them were then still alive, and they all took counsel together as to whom they ought to adjudge worthy to succeed James, and all unanimously decided that Simeon, son of Clopas, whom the scripture of the Gospel also mentions, was worthy of the throne of the diocese there.  He was, so it is said, a cousin of the Saviour, for Hegesippus relates that Clopas was the brother of Joseph” (Church History 3.11-12).

“The same writer says that other grandsons of one of the so-called brethren of the Savior named Judas survived to the same reign after they had given in the time of Domitian the testimony already recorded of them in behalf of the faith in Christ.  He writes thus: “They came therefore and presided over every church as witnesses belonging to the Lord’s family…” (Church history 3.32.1-6).

In the end, the gospels and the early Church fathers identify the “brothers of Jesus” — James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as his cousins.  With at least three of them — James, Simon and Joseph, as being sons of Cleopas, the brother of Joseph, and another Mary.

Lastly, the fact that Jesus entrusts Mary, his mother, to John at the cross (John 19:25-27), is also evidence that he was the only child because if Jesus had siblings, then this action would have been extremely disrespectful.  

See scholar Brant Pitre’s book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah, pgs. 116-126

Stunning: Christian Miraculous Healings

A dive into Christian history reveals a rich miracle tradition. From the ministry of Jesus to the succeeding apostolic age, and down the centuries to the present day, miracles have always been present. They are signs that God is truly with us — that He loves us, cares about us and is with us always (Matt 28:19-20).

Christianity’s miracle tradition is copious, varied and extremely impressive. Its credibility has only increased in more modern times, ever since the Church further strengthened its investigative approach towards miraculous claims — a process that includes employing modern science, consulting relevant professionals, seeking formal witness testimony, collecting documentation, etc.

It will take a series of posts to cover each aspect of Christianity’s miracle tradition more deeply and do it justice. For now, in this blog post, we will examine the evidence for miraculous healings, particularly healings as a result of the intercession of the saints — our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone ahead of us and now enjoy God’s full presence in Heaven.[1] Although they have finished their earthly journey, these friends of ours continue to intercede for us (Rev 5:8; 8:3-4 and Heb 12:1), the church militant, for the sake of our well-being, and so that ultimately, we will “finish our race”.[2] Since these men and women lived lives of exemplary virtue, their prayers carry great weight with God, making them powerful intercessors (James 5:16).

With that said, let us get into our discussion on the topic!

The church triumphant (those in heaven) and church militant (those on earth)

A Cautious Church

Those familiar with the Church’s approach to miraculous claims know that they proceed with great caution and skepticism.  In order for a healing to be approved as a formal miracle and used in the beatification or canonization process, it has to pass several stages.[4] The first is a local investigation led by an uninvolved doctor, who is appointed by a bishop.  If the case passes the local investigation, a comprehensive report on the healing is forwarded to the medical commission for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, a panel of 62 doctors in various specialties. In order for the case to be approved by the committee, it must meet seven criteria:[5]

  1. The disease must be serious and impossible, or at least very difficult, to cure by human means.
  2. The disease must not be in a stage at which it is liable to disappear shortly by itself. 
  3. Either no medical treatment must have been given, or it must be certain that the treatment given has no reference to the cure.
  4. The cure must be spontaneous (this refers to the rate of recovery)[6] 
  5. The cure must be complete
  6.  The cure must be permanent
  7. The cure must not be preceded by any crisis of a sort which would make it possible for the cure to be wholly or partially natural.[7]

If a healing, however extraordinary, does not meet all seven criteria, the Church, while not denying that it may be supernatural in origin, withholds the formal title “miracle” to avoid the slightest taint of promoting spurious miracles. It must also be noted that no “religious tests” are done on the doctors assessing these cases of healing.[8] The only criterion the Church cares about is the doctor’s competency in assessing the medical case in question.

If the panel decides that a healing meets all seven criteria and is “scientifically inexplicable”, they provide a report and recommendation to theologians, who assess whether the healing is due to supernatural factors — specifically, the result of the intercession of the saint in question.[9] After this step, the healing is evaluated by a special commission of cardinals and bishops, who review the findings of the doctors and theologians. If everything checks out, it is passed to the desk of the Pope, who signs off on the case in an official act of authentication. In the end, one can say that the process is a thorough examination of a possible miracle by two judges — science and faith.  

The cautiousness, skepticism and thoroughness of the Church towards miraculous claims have been recognized by many outside of it, who are familiar with its processes. 

Bill Briggs, a journalist for NBC News, described the Church’s process as “rigorous”.[10]  Commenting further, Briggs says:

I think what would surprise people outside the church is how very dubious investigators are. To examine these claims, they look at hundreds, if not thousands, of medical records and other pieces of evidence. It’s the furthest thing from a rubber stamp.[11]

Dr. Richard Ferrara, a dermatologist, was asked to participate in a local investigation of Paula Zarate’s healing of ichthyosis, a genetic skin disease, by the intercession of Solanus Casey (this case will be discussed later in the article). He was tasked with looking for holes in the account and searching existing literature. Ultimately, he considered the process “very in-depth and involved”.[12] Commenting on the process and the expectations of the Church, Ferrera said:

It was a very interesting, touching process. They want us to be very impartial, to hold it up to scrutiny.[13]  

Another medical professional and atheist, Jacalyn Duffin, also attests to the rigor of the Church’s investigation process. In a New York Times Op-Ed, she recounts her experience of being asked to do a blind reading, which she would later find out was for the Vatican. She also recalls her experience in later visiting the Vatican archives, to examine their documentation for miraculous healings used in the canonization process.[14] Quoting her article at length:

Kingston, Ontario — THERE was no mistaking the diagnostic significance of that little red stick inside a deep blue cell: The Auer rod meant the mystery patient had acute myelogenous leukemia. As slide after slide went by, her bone marrow told a story: treatment, remission, relapse, treatment, remission, remission, remission.

I was reading these marrows in 1987, but the samples had been drawn in 1978 and 1979. Median survival of that lethal disease with treatment was about 18 months; however, given that she had already relapsed once, I knew that she had to be dead. Probably someone was being sued, and that was why my hematology colleagues had asked for a blind reading.

Imagining an aggressive cross-examination in court, I emphasized in my report that I knew neither the history nor why I was reading the marrows. After the work was submitted, I asked the treating physician what was going on. She smiled and said that my report had been sent to the Vatican. This leukemia case was being considered as the final miracle in the dossier of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal and a candidate to become the first Canadian-born saint”

The “miracle” involving d’Youville had already been overturned once by the Vatican’s medical committee, unconvinced by the story of a first remission, a relapse, and a much longer second remission. The clerics argued that she had never relapsed and that her survival in first remission was rare but not impossibly so. But the panel and her advocates agreed that a “blind” reading of the evidence by another expert might provoke reconsideration. When my report confirmed what the Ottawa doctors found, that she had indeed had a short remission and then relapsed, the patient, who had prayed to d’Youville for help and, against all odds, was still alive, wanted me to testify.

The tribunal that questioned me was not juridical, but ecclesiastical. I was not asked about my faith. (For the record, I’m an atheist.) I was not asked if it was a miracle. I was asked if I could explain it scientifically. I could not, though I had come armed for my testimony with the most up-to-date hematological literature, which showed that long survivals following relapses were not seen.

When, at the end, the Vatican committee asked if I had anything more to say, I blurted out that as much as her survival, thus far, was remarkable, I fully expected her to relapse some day sooner or later. What would the Vatican do then, revoke the canonization? The clerics recorded my doubts. But the case went forward and d’Youville was canonized on Dec. 9, 1990.

That experience, as a hematologist, led me to a research project that I conducted in my other role, as a historian of medicine. I was curious: What were the other miracles used in past canonizations? How many were healings? How many involved up-to date treatments? How many were attended by skeptical physicians like me? How did all that change through time? And can we explain those outcomes now?

Over hundreds of hours in the Vatican archives, I examined the files of more than 1,400 miracle investigations — at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. A vast majority — 93 percent over all and 96 percent for the 20th century — were stories of recovery from illness or injury, detailing treatment and testimony from baffled physicians.

Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.

Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.

In the end, Duffin’s detailed testimony, coming from someone who does not even believe in Christianity, is powerful.

Cases of Miraculous Healings

After discussing the Church’s cautious approach towards miraculous healings as a result of the intercession of the saints, let us now examine actual examples. Out of the eight examples, we will look at in this article, seven were used in the process of beatification or canonization, meaning that they passed the seven criteria of the Church. One of the examples on the other hand, the healing of Dafne Gutierrez by the relic of St. Charbel, occurred after the saint’s canonization. However, this case of healing is just as extraordinary. It also underwent and passed a local investigation. 

All pictures used here are actual photos of the healing recipients, with the exception of Peter Smith. Instead of Peter, the photo used was of his brother F.X., who continues to share the incredible healing of his now-deceased brother, with others.

For our first case, let us examine the healing of Dafne Guiterrez.

1. Cured of blindness by the relic of St. Charbel[15]

When Dafne Gutierrez was 13 years old in 1999, she was diagnosed with the medical condition idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH). One effect of this condition can be another one called papilledema, where the pressure in the brain is greatly increased. This pressure affects the optic nerves, which in some cases such as Daphne’s eventually results in complete blindness.

 In 2014, Dafne lost vision in her left eye completely. In 2015, Dafne lost vision in her right eye as well, leaving her in total darkness. Her doctors declared her condition “permanent and medically irreversible”. Dafne also experienced “vise-like” headaches, seizures, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vomiting and dizziness. 

However, what broke Dafne’s heart the most was her inability to take care of her three children. In fact, she could not even take care of herself. As a result, she was approved for admittance to a nursing home. 

Then, in 2016, Dafne heard a Spanish radio news report that the relics of St. Charbel Makhlouf were on a pilgrimage, honoring the Lebanese saint’s 50th beatification anniversary, and were going to a nearby church (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Phoenix) in an upcoming weekend.  Neither Dafne nor her family heard of St. Charbel before but interestingly, later that same day, Dafne’s sister-in-law called and told her that she saw an announcement on the visit of the relics and suggested that Dafne and her husband go with her.

During the day of their visit and on the way to church Dafne prayed: “Please God heal me — if not for me, then do it for my kids! I’m tired of going to You praying and asking You to heal me…I am giving in. If You don’t want to do it for me, then do it for my kids”. Then when she arrived at the church she prayed again to God and then to St. Charbel saying: “I don’t know who you are, but please help me”. 

After mass and during the veneration of St. Charbel’s relics, Dafne was blessed with holy oil “touched to” the relics by Fr. Wissam Akiki.[16] Fr. Akiki prayed for Dafne to be cured of her condition. As this was happening Dafne felt “very strongly” that someone was standing next to her. After the blessing of the oil and prayer, Dafne asked her sister-in-law “Who was that standing next to me, on my right side?”. Her sister-in-law replied that there was no one standing next to her other than Fr. Akki. To this day, Dafne is not sure who was standing next to her at that moment, but she is certain that “someone” was there. 

From the moment Dafne was blessed and prayed after, she says that she started to feel different: “I can’t explain it but my body felt different”. 

The next day, Sunday January 17, 2016, Dafne went again to St. Joseph for the 3:00 pm Mass, and to venerate the relic of St. Charbel once more. 

Early the next day at 4:00 am she suddenly awoke with her eyes “burning”: “They were like burning — really burning”. Her head also hurt “like after an operation”. Dafne woke up her husband to tell him about what she was feeling in her eyes. In response, her husband remarked how that was impossible since she had no sensation in her eyes. Then, her husband placed his hands over her eyes and noted that they were “vibrating and moving”. He also noticed a strong smell like “burning meat”. After this, Dafne realized that she could actually see her husband very vaguely, like a shadow. She shouted, “I can see you! I can see you with both of my eyes!”. Dafne started to cry. She wiped her eyes and then opened them to see if she could really see. She could. 

Within three days, Dafne’s sight was restored to a perfect 20/20 vision. This sudden and remarkable healing was confirmed by an ophthalmologist and later by several other physicians. 

In the end, a medical committee led by Dr. Borik, carried out a thorough review of Gutierrez’s medical records, as well as repeated examinations.[17] The committee concluded: “After a thorough physical exam, extensive literature search and review of all medical records, we have no medical explanation and therefore believe this to be a miraculous healing through the intercession of St. Charbel.”

2. An incurable illness vs. the late Pope John Paul II[18]

Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, a French nun, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001.  By 2005, the nun’s condition had deteriorated greatly. She could barely move her left side. She had difficulty writing legibly with her right hand (the only functioning one at this point), moving around easily and driving more than short distances. She was in such pain, in fact, that she could hardly sleep. Looking towards the future, Sr. Simon Pierre knew that she would eventually pass away. Parkinson’s had no cure. Knowing the inevitability of her condition’s degeneration, she could not bear to watch her beloved Pope John Paul II appear on television, because he too was suffering from Parkinson’s: “It reminded me of what I would be in a few years’ time, I had to listen to his broadcasts rather than watch them”, the French nun said.    

Even if Sr. Simon-Pierre was suffering and struggling greatly, she still continued to work. She considered it very important to her and had always felt a calling to serve in maternity. 

Shortly after the death of John Paul II,  Pope Benedict XVI’s waiver to open the sainthood Cause of his predecessor became official. Immediately, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s community, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, united in asking John Paul II to intercede for their sister’s healing. Even their one foreign mission in Africa joined in the effort. However, despite the community’s prayers, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s condition continued to worsen. In less than three weeks after Pope Benedict opened John Paul II’s Cause, Sr. Simon-Pierre had given up on striving to work. The pain and exhaustion was too much. Now, the tremors in her right hand were so severe that writing (which was necessary for her work in healthcare) was becoming impossible. 

Sr. Simon-Pierre approached her superior, Sr. Marie Thomas Fabre, and asked for permission to resign from her professional work. Hearing this and not understanding the gravity of Sr. Simon-Pierre’s deterioration, Sr. Thomas Fabre reminded her that the community was sending her to Lourdes, a Catholic Marian shrine known for healing, in August, and told her that she should try to endure until then. She also added “John Paul II has not yet said his last word”. When Sr. Simon-Pierre tried to explain that writing using her right-hand was becoming impossible, Sr. Thomas Fabre asked her to write the name of John Paul II on a piece of paper. Sr. Simon-Pierre did not want to show what her writing had become but since she was repeatedly asked by her superior to write, she did.[19] The scrawl was far from her once clear handwriting (a graphologist who later examined it described it as the writing of someone near death). As her superior looked at the paper, she realized how bad Sr. Simon-Pierre’s condition had become. The two looked at each other then simply sat for a time praying. After doing so, Sr. Simon-Pierre made her way out of her superior’s office. 

Some hours later, between 9:30 – 9:45 pm,  Sr. Simon-Pierre went to her office before going to her room, feeling an unusual need to pick up a pen and write. As she recounts: “something in my heart seemed to say ‘Take up a pen and write”. Sr. Simon-Pierre did so, writing some scripture, but to her surprise her handwriting was clear, completely legible, normal. Utterly surprised, she did not know how to take in what had just happened. She continued her routine and went to bed. 

At 4:30 am in the morning, Sr. Simon-Pierre awoke “fully alive”. She felt no pain or stiffness, and interiorly she felt “much different”. She also remembered being in awe that she actually slept well since the pain caused by her condition prevented her from doing so.

Dressing up without any difficulty, she hurried to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and spent an hour expressing her gratitude and joy for the changes in her body. She then went to the community chapel and joined her fellow sisters for mass. Sr. Simon Pierre — who for a long time had not been able to stand steadily enough to do the scripture readings volunteered to do so, and she did so just fine. It was only after she had received the Eucharist that she realized that she had truly been healed.  She did not take her medicines any longer. During her next regular medical check-up, her neurologist was speechless — Sr. Simon-Pierre showed no signs of Parkinson’s. 

Sr. Marie Thomas Fabre reported the healing to the postulator of John Paul II’s Cause, Monsignor Slawomir Oder.  A couple of months later, Oder makes two trips to visit the sisters in Puyricard, France. He asks the local bishop, Archbishop Claude Feidt, to investigate the events. A thorough investigation was conducted. An expert neurologist who was not Sr. Simon-Pierre’s doctor, came up with questions that needed to be answered. Other professionals were also consulted including other neurologists, professors of neurology, a neuropsychiatrist, a plain psychiatrist and a handwriting expert (handwriting is an important gauge of Parkinson’s). This investigation lasted a year and in the end, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s healing was declared scientifically inexplicable. Her healing was accepted for Pope John Paul II’s beatification.

In 2007, Sr. Marie Pierre was interviewed before TV cameras at a press conference with Archbishop Feidt during which she said: “I am cured. It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II”.

3. An immediate healing followed by the odor of sanctity[20]

One day, as Melissa Villalobos was getting ready for work and ironing her clothes, she stumbled across an EWTN program talking about Cardinal John Henry Newman. As Villalobos recounts: “These priests and scholars were talking about him and his life and what a holy man he was, and what a tremendous influence he had on the church and on other people in his life…I was really taken by it and I thought, ‘This man is so amazing’”. 

In 2011, Villalobos’ husband brought home a couple of prayer cards of then Bl. John Henry Newman. Villalobos placed one card in the living room and the other in her bedroom. She started developing a relationship with John Henry Newman, considering him a close spiritual friend: “I would pass his picture in the house and I would say little prayers to him for whatever our family’s needs were at the time – the children, my husband, myself. I really started to develop a very constant dialogue with him”, Melissa said. 

In 2013, Melissa became pregnant. A troubling sign, however, arose. She found herself bleeding significantly during the 1st trimester of her pregnancy. Melissa went to the doctor who performed an ultrasound on her. She was informed that she had developed a condition called subchorionic hematoma, a blood clot between the placenta and the uterine wall that causes the former to be partially ripped and detached from the latter. Simply put, there was a hole in her placenta and it was allowing blood to escape. In Melissa’s case, the blood clot that caused this hole was two and a half times the size of her baby. Her condition was serious. There was no cure to be found in medicine or surgery. The best Melissa could do was what her doctor recommended — strict bed rest, for the sake of her health (to protect herself against the possibility of hemorrhaging to death) and in order to give her baby the best possible chance.

On Friday, May 10, 2013, Melissa went to the emergency room because her bleeding was worse. Once again, her doctor told her that she should confine herself to strict bed rest, but this was difficult to imagine given that she had four small children and a husband who had to work. The doctor also told Melissa and her husband that a miscarriage was likely, but that if the baby survived the pregnancy, she would likely be born prematurely because she would be small. 

As if the situation was not stressful enough, Melissa’s husband, David, had to leave for a mandatory business trip — leaving her alone in the house with her children.

On Wednesday morning, Melissa woke up in bed in a pool of her own blood. At this time, her husband was already in an airplane on the way to Atlanta. Thinking about what she should do, Melissa chose to put off calling 911 because she did not know who would take care of her kids if she was taken in an ambulance to the hospital. She made her kids breakfast and told them to stay put before going upstairs. After going upstairs, her condition greatly worsened and she collapsed in the bathroom. As Melissa recounts: “Now the bleeding was really bad because I had just gone up the stairs, which I really shouldn’t have done. I kind of collapsed on the bathroom floor out of weakness and desperation.”

Melissa laid on the floor, thinking that she should now call 911. However, she realized that she did not have her cellphone. She also knew that the exertion of yelling for her kids would cause more damage and bleeding. As she lay on the bathroom floor Melissa was hoping that one of her children would wander into the room so she could ask him or her to call 911 but none of them came. She heard nothing from her children and the silence made her even more worried. 

With thoughts of losing her unborn baby, worry for her children downstairs and wondering if she would die, Villalobos uttered a prayer to Cardinal Newman: “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop”. Right after she finished that prayer, her bleeding stopped immediately. As Villalobos recounts: “Just then, as soon as I finished the sentence, the bleeding stopped.”

Villalobos got off the floor, confirmed that there was no bleeding and thanked Cardinal Newman. After doing so, a scent of roses filled the bathroom. As Villalobos testifies, it was “the strongest scent of roses I’ve ever smelled”. In Christian history, the scent of roses has been associated with saints and the stigmata. As a mystical phenomenon, it is called the “odour of sanctity”. 

That very afternoon, Villalobos’ cure was confirmed by an ultrasound, with the doctor telling her that everything was “perfect” and that there was no more hole in the placenta. As a result, Villalobos was able to resume her full active life as a mom. On December 27, 2013, Melissa gave birth to Gemma after a full pregnancy. Gemma weighed 8 pounds and 8 ounces. She had no medical problems.

After Gemma was born, Melissa reported her healing to the promoters of Cardinal Newman’s canonization. In the fall of 2014, representatives of Newman’s Cause visited Chicago to meet with Villalobos and her husband. Officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago carried out a local study of the healing and forwarded the case to the Vatican for another series of investigations. On February 13 2013, Pope Francis announced that the miracle was accepted and that Cardinal Newman would be canonized. 

 4. Revived after 61 minutes and a complete recovery[21]

In 2010, Bonnie Engstrom found herself pregnant again. As she and her husband thought of what they were going to name their third child, they decided on the name James, after the Christian saint. For their child’s middle name on the other hand, they decided on the name Fulton, after the late American bishop and renowned evangelist Fulton Sheen. The couple decided to name their child in part after Sheen because they knew that their local diocese in Peoria had opened a Cause for Sheen’s sainthood (Sheen grew up in Peoria and was also ordained as a priest there). They also looked up to Fulton Sheen and believed that he was in Heaven, and that it was only a matter of time until he would be canonized. As a result, they asked Fulton Sheen in prayer to intercede for their unborn baby.  However, the day of Bonnie’s delivery several months later was anything but easy. 

On the morning of September 16, 2010 Bonnie Engstorm had gone into labor. As planned, a midwife and her assistant arrived at her home. With her husband Travis by her side, Bonnie delivered James Fulton Engstrom at around 3 a.m. However, when the midwife put the newborn on Bonnie’s chest, they noticed trouble. He was not breathing or moving, and his arms and legs hung loosely. Within seconds, the midwife grabbed the infant and began CPR while the assistant called 911. The paramedics arrived in a flash (they were stationed just down the block) but the baby’s condition went beyond their expertise, so an ambulance was called from Eureka. As this was happening, Bonnie turned to prayer towards Fulton Sheen, repeating his name: “Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen”. Her husband, on the other hand, would send out requests to all of their friends and network to pray to Fulton Sheen for their son.

As Bonnie and Travis later found out, their baby’s umbilical cord had knotted, which can happen during pregnancy or during birth, and cut off blood supply. When it came to their baby, the knot had stopped his heartbeat. 

As they waited for the ambulance to arrive, the midwife continued CPR. Once it did, James Fulton was hurried into it. Travis rode in the front seat and glanced back as the paramedic continued CPR. His baby had been hooked up to a heart monitor which showed no pulse. Bonnie was taken in another ambulance as a precaution since she had just given birth. 

James Fulton’s ambulance arrived at OSF Saint Francis Healthcare Medical Center in Peoria in 20 minutes. Bonnie, having just given birth, was taken in another direction, while Travis followed medical personnel rushing their son to the emergency department. The medical team tried to get the baby’s heart going. After 15 minutes with no effect, a doctor told the team: “We’ll try for 5 more minutes. Then we’ll call the time of death”. Five minutes passed and Jame’s heart still showed no activity. The medical team stopped trying to resuscitate James. They took their hands off his lifeless body and began to prepare a certificate of death. Shortly afterward, James’ heart shot up to 148 beats per minute — just like any healthy newborn.

Although the doctors were astonished by James’ inexplicable return from dead, their attitude was still grim. 61 minutes had expired between James’ birth and his first heartbeat. As a result, he must have suffered severe organ damage due to a lack of blood circulation (which is essential for the oxygen to reach the different parts of the body). Their opinion was that James would die within a few hours or before the weekend ended. If he did survive, against great odds, he would be severely disabled — being blind, having cerebral palsy, and not even being able to talk or eat. They bluntly informed his parents of the situation, who in turn, continued to pray to Fulton Sheen. In the end, the predictions of the doctors never came to pass as James’ recovery turned out to be complete.  He suffered zero negative effects.

Soon after, the couple submitted their son’s healing to the Fulton J. Sheen Foundation in Peoria. An investigation was launched. As Bonnie Engstorm recounts: “Travis and I turned over all of the medical records; we and 15 other people were interviewed. Everyone had to answer the same list of questions for consistency’s sake—James’s doctors, the midwife, friends, pastors—to build the evidence for the miracle. The evidence was gathered and sent to Rome”.

In the end, James’ revival and complete healing was deemed scientifically inexplicable. The case was formally approved as a miracle, paving the way for Fulton Sheen’s beatification.

Just recently, in September 2019, Bonnie Engstrom released a book describing the events that happened that day as well as the Church’s investigation into their son’s healing in greater detail. It is entitled “61 Minutes to a Miracle: Fulton Sheen and a True Story of the Impossible”.  

5. A catastrophic accident reversed[22]

Fr. F.X., brother of now deceased Fr. Peter Smith

On March 14, 1921, Peter Smith was born in a newly built annex to Columbus Hospital on 34th Street in Manhattan. The hospital was a charity institution founded by Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini to provide free service to the poor immigrant population of New York. When Peter was born, the hospital was still staffed by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who were established by Mother Cabrini back in Italy in 1880. 

The newborn was handed to his mother Margaret Smith and quickly given to Mae Redford, one of the lay-nurses, to be cleaned. Back then, it was a common method to put a one percent solution of silver nitrate into a newborn’s eyes to protect him from any bacterial infections that could have occurred during birth. However, the nurse, in a hurry, made a terrible mistake — she ended up applying a 50 percent solution into the baby’s eyes.

Young Peter Smith’s face was blackened and badly burnt, pus exuded from his tiny nostrils, and worst of all, where his eyes should be were two grotesque endemic swellings. Redford ran down the halls screaming and asking for help from a doctor. In the hours following the terrible accident, the baby was examined by three doctors and an eye specialist but unfortunately, it was a lost cause. The acid had already ravaged the baby’s eyes. Indeed, by the time the last doctor arrived at the scene, Dr. Horan, he could not even open the baby’s eyes because they were so swollen. They also started to exude puss like the nose. The doctors also noted that if the baby lives, he would be badly disfigured, since the acid solution which streamed down his eyes had burned through the layers of the skin, leaving his body incapable of repairing itself with new skin but only with scar tissue. 

The Superior, Mother Teresa Bacigalupo, however, knew that there was still something that could be done. She got Mother Cabrini’s relic, who had just died less than 4 years ago, and made it touch the baby’s eyes. Then she pinned the relic to his nightgown. She, together with the other sisters then spent the entire night praying in the hospital’s chapel, begging for Mother Cabrini to intercede for the baby’s healing. 

At nine o’clock the next morning, two doctors arrived at the nursery. To their astonishment, they found baby Peter’s eyelids much less swollen and pussy. One of the doctors, Dr. Kearney, opened the baby’s eyelids but instead of seeing the ravages of the deadly acid, he saw, looking back at him, two perfect eyes. The two doctors were stunned and as other doctors and nuns arrived on the scene, they too shared the same reaction. When nurse Mae arrived at the scene and learned of the healing she sobbed with great gratitude. Amid the joy and amazement in the room, someone points out something else inexplicable: the horribly charred skin which was supposed to leave young Peter disfigured for life was healing to smooth infant satin, instead of blistering and contracting. In the room, no smiles were as broad as the nuns. They knew Mother Cabrini’s sanctity personally, and now the Lord had affirmed it by this stunning miracle through her intercession.

In the end, however, the acid did leave some traces on Peter’s face. As he left the hospital, he had two scars from where the silver nitrate ran down his eyes. These however would dissipate as he grew older.

Fourteen years later, the Smith family had another boy. They named him John Frances Xavier Smith after Mother Cabrini, in thanksgiving for her intercession for his older brother. John Francis Xavier Smith would be affectionately called F.X. throughout his life. In the end, Peter Smith and F.X. ended up becoming priests, and the healing of the former would be approved as a miracle, leading to the beatification of Mother Cabrini. 

Fr. Peter Smith died at the age of 70 in 2002. Fr. F.X. on the other hand is still alive today. At the age of 84, he continues to offer Sunday Mass in New York at two different parishes.

6.  Another “incurable” disease[23]

Manuel Nevado Rey, a Spanish doctor and specialist in orthopedic surgery, exposed himself frequently to x-rays due to his work since 1956. In 1962, the first symptoms of radiodermatitis began to appear, a skin disease caused by exposure to x-rays that leads to cancerous growths that ultimately metastasize.  By 1984, Rey had to limit his activities to minor operations because his hands were gravely affected. In 1992, he stopped operating completely. Since radiodermatitis is incurable and irreversible, Ray never sought treatment and only followed his doctor’s suggestion of using Vaseline or lanolin to soothe his skin. 

Towards the beginning of November 1992, Rey went to the Ministry of Agriculture since he had some questions about farming, a big hobby of his. As Rey was trying to find the person he had an appointment with, he ended up meeting Luis Eugenio Bernardo Carrascal, an agronomic engineer who worked at the Ministry. Carrascal kindly looked after Rey as he waited for the person he was meant to see but in so doing, he noticed Rey’s hands and asked what had happened to them. Rey explained his condition, saying that he had advanced chronic radiodermatitis. Upon hearing this, Carrascal gave him a prayer card of Josemaria Escriva and recommended that he seek his intercession. Rey did so and his hands began to improve, and his trip to Vienna a few days later only made him pray much harder. 

During this trip to Vienna to attend a medical conference, he was very impressed to find prayer cards of then Bl. Josemaria Escriva in the churches he visited. As a result, he invoked his intercession more often. Within 2 weeks of placing himself under the care of Josemaria Escriva, Rey was completely cured of radiodermatitis. He was able to perform surgical operations again. 

In the end, after investigating the case, the Medical Committee of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously established the following diagnosis: a “cancerous state of chronic radiodermatitis” in its third stage; with a certain prognosis of “infaust” (without hope of a cure). The total cure of the lesions, confirmed by the objective examinations carried out on Rey in 1992, 1994 and 1997, was declared by the committee to be “very rapid, complete, lasting, and scientifically inexplicable”. Rey’s healing was approved, resulting in Josemaria’s canonization in 2002.

7. Traces of the healing on the floor[24]

Paula Medina Zarate, a retired teacher from Panama, made her way to St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit in 2012. She did so after the urging of Detroit-based Capuchin friars, who had ministered in her hometown parishes near Panama city. 

At the monastery, Zarate did not recognize the tomb before her eyes, which was surrounded by so many people: “What’s that? A table?”, Zarate told her Capuchin friend Rev. Jozef Timmers. Timmers told her that it was a tomb, explaining how pilgrims came to the resting place of Solanus Casey to pray for healings. On little paper slips, they wrote down their requests and left them on top of it. Hearing this, Zarate filled out 14 pieces of paper for the sick and troubled people she visited in her parish volunteer work back in Panama. After doing so, she heard a voice saying: “What do you need for you?”. In response, Zarate got back down on her knees and placed herself on the tomb. She asked mercy for herself and for the condition on her legs and arms. 

Since birth, Zarate had suffered from a genetic condition called ichthyosis. The condition causes thickened, scaly skin. It appeared on Zarate’s legs, arms and sometimes on her scalp, making her skin crack and bleed. Panama’s heat would only enhance the irritation and discomfort it caused Zarate. 

As she knelt there, Zarate says that she felt an intense heat all over her body, from her feet and upward. She was interrupted however by Timmers who urged her to join him in the monastery’s dining room for lunch. Zarate told him that she did not have an appetite and explained the heat she was feeling in her legs. She excused herself and went to her guest room at the monastery. She examined her legs under her pants and what she saw made her afraid. As Zarate recounts:  “What I saw made me afraid. I touched my legs and the scales were falling on the floor”.  Since her skin condition often caused cracking and bleeding, Zarate worried that could be happening. Fortunately, she thought wrong. 

That night, Zarate could not sleep as her body continued to shed sheets of scaly patches. In the morning, the newly revealed skin was as “smooth as a baby’s” and the sheets of diseased skin that fell off her body were seen by Capuchin staffers. After learning of the healing, Capuchin priests quickly prepared for an official investigation with medical and church experts — recording Zarate’s testimony. 

As the investigation commenced some time later, the Capuchins paid for the flights of Zarate and her Panamanian dermatologist to visit Detroit and testify before an Archdiocese tribunal, a church court tasked with investigating the healing. Detroit Msgr. Ronald Browne, who presided over the tribunal, said of Zarate: “Paula was one of the humblest people I ever met. It’s definitely a heartfelt and moving story. When she’s relating it, you definitely see the sincerity of her”. However, the tribunal also needed medical facts. Zarate was examined by three metro Detroit dermatologists, including an expert on ichthyosis. Biopsies were taken of her skin. 

When the tribunal finished its report of Zarate’s case, a thick document was sealed in red wax by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and a Capuchin priest hand-delivered it to the Vatican. Eventually this healing was approved as a formal miracle, resulting in the beatification of Bl. Solanus Casey. 

Zarate, her mother, her dermatologist and about 20 other relatives, friends and coworkers were present during Solanus Casey’s beatification ceremony in 2017, which drew over 70,000 faithful at Ford Stadium, Detroit. 

Beatification of Solanus Casey (2017)

8. “Flesh reconstructing anatomy”[25]

Guntherman meets Pope John Paul II at Katharine Drexel’s canonization (2000)

On February 1974, 14 year old Robert Gutherman developed a terribly severe earache. He had been to a series of doctors, who treated it as a normal ear infection. However, the problem persisted and Guntherman was in grave pain. 

As Robert was suffering from this infection, a sister from the motherhouse of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, spoke to Robert’s mother. The sister had heard from some of Robert’s brothers, who were doing cleaning work at their motherhouse, that their brother was not well. The sister told Robert’s mother to pray to Mother Katharine that her son’s pain would either become more tolerable or go away completely. She told Robert’s mother that they believed that their foundress was in Heaven, and that their community would also be praying for Robert. Robert’s mother acceded to her advice and asked Mother Katharine for her intercession, asking her to help them as she would “a good neighbor in times of trial”. She also reminded Mother Katharine that Robert had often been an altar server in a chapel she had built. 

Since Guntherman’s ear infection and severe pain continued, he was hospitalized in Saint Christopher’s Hospital, Philadelphia. His doctor conducted an exploratory operation to assess his ear infection. It turned out that his ear infection was not a regular one but a very serious one that needed immediate treatment. The operation revealed that two of the three bones in Robert’s ear that were essential to hearing, as well as several other nerves, were completely destroyed. The ear infection had also penetrated so deep into his ear that it was about to enter his brain. The doctor informed Guntherman that he would never be able to hear again. The damage was done. He also told him that two more “repair operations” still needed to be carried out in the future but that these could not restore his hearing. 

Knowing the gravity of Guntherman’s condition, the doctor acted right away. Medical procedures were carried out to clean out the disease and these were successful. Fortunately for Guntherman, a stunning recovery lay ahead for him.  

A few days after his exploratory operation, Robert was resting in his ward, with his good ear on his pillow and his bad ear covered in bandages. Someone in the corridor called his name, “Bobby”. He heard it clearly. Guntherman told his mother this and she told the doctor, but the doctor dismissed it saying that was “impossible”. The doctor did not investigate further and Robert was discharged from Saint Christopher’s.

 During his next check-up, his doctor was astounded. Upon examining Robert’s ear, he found that Robert’s body was “reconstructing its anatomy” — the flesh was “fusing together” to repair the hole in the eardrum. He told Robert that if his ear continued to heal as he observed, he would not have to go through the planned reconstructive surgeries. On the boy’s record sheet the doctor wrote: “Child reconstructing anatomy. Could this be possible?”. He had no explanation for what was happening to Robert. 

In the end, none of the planned surgeries would come to pass. The healing of Robert’s ear ended up being complete.  Even the two bones that were totally destroyed were restored, perfectly. As Robert himself testifies: “Yes. My doctor testified that those two bones were gone, and then returned. I mean, say you lost an arm in an accident. Would it ever grow back? No. Well, two bones in my right ear did”. Robert’s case was forwarded to the Vatican. It was deemed “scientifically inexplicable” and approved for the beatification of Katharine Drexel.

In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Robert Guntherman reflected back on his miracle saying: “It’s been more than 40 years, but thinking about it still gives me the chills. It has given me a clearer understanding of the presence of God. I know that Jesus loves and cares about me, and that He’s still working miracles”.


The evidence for Christian miraculous healings is very impressive, even limiting our examination to healings as a result of the intercession of the saints. Although the cases we examined here are a solid sampling, they are far from exhaustive. Further cases can easily be added, literally, by the thousands.[26] The testimony is abundant from people around the world. These things simply happen. The only thing one has to consider is how to interpret these stunning healings.  

The healings in question are extraordinary, rapid and scientifically inexplicable (e.g. Dafne being cured of her blindness, Sr. Simon Marie Pierre being healed of her Parkinson’s overnight, Peter Smith’s eyes being restored from irreversible acid damage, etc). They occur in a clear Christian religious context (i.e. prayer to a saint to heal their disease). A number of accounts also contain indicators that further point to a supernatural origin for these healings.  Among the cases we discussed these include:

  • Dafne strongly sensing that someone was beside her when she was blessed with oil touched to St. Charbel’s relic and prayed after by a priest,  and her being “certain” of this.
  • Sr. Simon-Pierre’s feeling an unusual urge to pick up a pen and write, and being able to do so clearly and normally. 
  • Melissa smelling “the strongest scent of roses” (i.e. the odour of sanctity) after uttering words of gratitude to John Henry Newman. 
  • Zarate hearing a voice asking for “what she needed”  after she filled out petitions for the sick and troubled people she knew back in Panama. 

In the end, the evidence for Christian miraculous healings provides powerful testimony for the truth of Christianity and the effectiveness of the intercession of the saints in Heaven, Christian men and women who have displayed exemplary virtues during their earthly lives. As it says in James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail”.


  1. The word “pray” finds its roots in the Latin word precari, which means to entreat or ask (e.g. “I pray thee”). When we pray to the saints in Heaven, we are asking them to intercede for us to God. We are asking them to pray for us, in the same way that we ask our friends to pray for us in our daily lives. Having lived lives of exemplary holiness however, the prayers of the saints have greater efficacy with God.

    Although the saints may be deceased from an earthly perspective, they are actually “more alive” than we are in Heaven.

    Another point to clarify is that anyone who is in Heaven is a “saint”. However, the Church formally recognizes someone as a saint if he or she lived a life of exemplary holiness (the process for determining this is a whole other matter, I will discuss it in a future post on the saints), and if God works miracles tied to the individual.

  2. Catholic theology divides the Church, the mystical body of Christ, into three states: the Church triumphant (those in Heaven), Church suffering (those in purgatory) and Church militant (the Church on earth). To learn more about the three states of the Church, see this Aleteia article.

  3. Miraculous healings also occur outside intercession of the saints — prayer to God, healings at Marian shrines and healings from Christian saints who had the gift of healing. I will discuss the latter two in future blog posts. Healings at Marian shrines are best discussed alongside the apparitions, while healings from Christian saints who had the gift of healing are best discussed alongside the other mystical phenomena in their lives. 

  4. To learn more about the history of the canonization process see Michael O Neill’s “Exploring the Miraculous”. For brevity’s sake, I will say that caution and care has always been an attribute of the process. In early Christianity, before any outward signs of recognition could take place (e.g. the building of an altar over the saint’s tomb, translating the saint’s relics to a church, promoting a prayer. etc) a formal inquiry into the holiness of the individual and any miracles to have occurred through his or her intercession must be undertaken. So at its very essence (i.e. an investigation into the holiness of the individual and any alleged miracles that occurred through his or her intercession), the canonization process today and then remains the same. In early Christianity however, the canonization process was carried out and determined at a local level (local diocese or region) — though this recognition could spread elsewhere as the saint’s cultus grew. It was only during the Middle Ages that canonizations were decided by the Holy See, to make the recognition more official and more known to the universal Church. As the centuries passed and with the advent of modern science, the canonization process increased in rigor, leading us to the current process.

  5. O’Neill, Exploring the Miraculous, pg. 90.

  6. This criterion refers to the rate of recovery. As stated by O’Neill in a personal correspondence (email): “In practice the Catholic Church relies on the opinions of doctors who will consider something without natural explanation when the rate of healing far exceeds what is typical or even within the range of possibilities. Diseases are different so the expected rate of recovery is different. The essential point to this criterion is that the miraculous healing must happen very quickly…”.
  7. This criterion involves ruling out possible natural explanations in the healing. As O’Neill told me in a personal correspondence (email): “This criterion rules out the possibility that there was another factor in the cure. If there is any possible natural explanation for the healing, it will not be declared a miracle”.

  8. Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 410 (ebook).

  9. Theologians look into the case to see if it can be established that the healing occurred exclusively as a result of the intercession of the saint in question. As O’Neill explains: “One of the most challenging aspects of identifying a worthy miracle is first establishing that it was worked exclusively through the intercession of the would-be saint. It is not uncommon for a person who needs help to ask many friends for a hand, so it seems reasonable that someone facing a life-and-death situation would call on the entire litany of saints if not his or her personal and most effective favorites. Even if the miracle were to be approved as worthy of belief as being beyond natural causes, not being able to pinpoint which saint interceded in the miracle would make it ineligible for use to establish someone’s cause for canonization” (Exploring the Miraculous, pg. 91).

  10. Draper, E. (2013). Vatican declares healing of Colorado Springs boy a miracle after prayers to German nun. The Denver Post. Retrieved from: https://www.denverpost.com/2013/04/12/vatican-declares-healing-of-colorado-springs-boy-a-miracle-after-prayers-to-german-nun/

  11. Ibid.

  12. Montemurri, P. (2017). Did Father Solanus Casey help cure a woman from Panama? Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from: https://www.freep.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/11/17/detroit-priest-miracle/873797001/

  13. Ibid.

  14.  Duffin, J. (2016). Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/opinion/pondering-miracles-medical-and-religious.html

  15. Knap, P. (2017). Arizona Woman’s Blindness Miraculously Cured Through St. Charbel. National Catholic Register. Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/pattyknap/arizona-womans-blindness-miraculously-cured-through-st.-charbel

    Schiffer, K. (2017). Phoenix mother: St. Charbel cured by blindness. CNA. Retrieved from: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/phoenix-mother-st-charbel-cured-my-blindness-68040

  16. Someone pondering about the Christian belief in relics may find it macabre and wonder: “Why do these people believe in this?”. The answer to this question is that it is attested to in the Bible and that it has simply worked historically. 

    The Bible attests to the efficacy of relics many times. When the corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha, the man came back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). A woman with a hemorrhage was healed of her condition by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Mk 5:25-34). The signs and wonders worked by the apostles were so great that people lined the streets with the sick so that when Peter walked by at least his shadow might “touch” them (Acts 5:12-15). When handkerchiefs or aprons that had been touched to Paul were applied to the sick, people were healed and evil spirits were exorcised (Acts 19:11-12). 

    The efficacy of relics are also attested to by Christians down the ages. See for example, the testimony of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th century AD. Both of these men were superb thinkers, each being recognized as one of the thirty-six doctors of the Church:

    “You know—nay, you have yourselves seen—that many are cleansed from evil spirits, that very many also, having touched with their hands the robe of the saints, are freed from those ailments which oppressed them; you see that the miracles of old time are renewed, when through the coming of the Lord Jesus grace was more largely shed forth upon the earth, and that many bodies are healed as it were by the shadow of the holy bodies. How many napkins are passed about! How many garments, laid upon the holy relics and endowed with healing power, are claimed! All are glad to touch even the outside thread, and whosoever touches will be made whole” – St. Ambrose (letter XXII).

    “For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints; but they are not so brilliant and conspicuous as to cause them to be published with such glory as accompanied the former miracles [of Christ]” – St. Augustine (The City of God, Chapter 8).

    Today, healings with relics continue, as seen in the cases of St. Charbel and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini that are discussed in this article. To give one more case of a healing through a relic see the healing of Carlos Miguel Valdés Rodríguez by the intercesion of St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad

    In the end, scripture and history both attest that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing. He does so in order to draw our attention to the saints as models and intercessors. 

  17. Dafne’s healing had a substantial influence on Dr. Borick, convincing her of the efficacy of prayer. Borick, telling the National Catholic Register: “It has changed my practice! It has changed how I relate to patients. Now (referring to her relationship with those entrusted to her care) prayer is such an important part of what we do.”

  18. Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 410-936 (ebook).

    Zenit staff. (2011). Sister Marie Simon-Pierre on Her Cure from Parkinson. Zenit. Retrieved from: https://zenit.org/articles/sister-marie-simon-pierre-on-her-cure-from-parkinson/

  19. Later, Sr. Thomas Fabre said that she hoped that she had not embarrassed Sr. Simon Pierre: “Unconsciously, I wanted to verify that she could still write, it was not the end, and that she should not give up” (Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle, loc. 697). 

  20. Duriga, J. (2019). Chicago woman’s healing is miracle in Cardinal Newman’s sainthood cause. Cruxnow. Retrieved from: https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2019/07/chicago-womans-healing-is-miracle-in-cardinal-newmans-sainthood-cause/  

    Farrow, M. (2019). How a miracle through Cardinal Newman saved a mother and baby in a dangerous pregnancy. CNA. Retrieved from: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/how-cardinal-newman-saved-a-mother-and-baby-in-a-dangerous-pregnancy-85875

  21. Pronechen, J. (2019). Meet the Miracle Boy Saved by Fulton Sheen’s Prayers. National Catholic Register. Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/meet-the-miracle-boy-saved-by-fulton-sheens-prayers

    Stewart, H. (2019). She prayed to Fulton Sheen and her baby was saved. Meet Bonnie Engstrom. America Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/07/28/she-prayed-fulton-sheen-and-her-baby-was-saved-meet-bonnie-engstrom

    Luciano, P. (2019). No pulse for 61 minutes — Fulton Sheen and the miracle baby. The State Journal-Register. Retrieved from: https://www.sj-r.com/news/20190720/no-pulse-for-61-minutes—fulton-sheen-and-miracle-baby

  22. Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 96-152 (ebook).

    Connolly, S. (2019). “The age of miracles has not passed”. The Catholic World Report. Retrieved from: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/11/12/the-age-of-miracles-has-not-passed/

  23. Nevado, M. (2001). Testimony of Dr. Manuel Nevado. Opus Dei. Retrieved from: https://opusdei.org/en/article/testimony-of-dr-manuel-nevado/

    Josemaria Escriva De Balaguer: The Miracle Approved for the Canonization. Vatican Retrieved from: https://opusdei.org/en-ph/article/miracle-attributed-to-blessed-josemaria-is-approved/

  24. Montemurri, P. (2017). Did Father Solanus Casey help cure a woman from Panama? Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from: https://www.freep.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/11/17/detroit-priest-miracle/873797001/

  25. Graves, K. (2017). This Man’s Ear Was Miraculously Healed, Thanks to St. Katharine Drexel. National Catholic Register. Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimgraves/this-mans-ear-was-miraculously-healed-thanks-to-st.-katharine-drexel

    Glynn, P. (2003). Healing Fire of Christ: Reflections on Modern Miracles – Knock, Lourdes, Fatima. Ignatius Press.

  26. According to Duffin, she examined over 1,400 miracle investigations, at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. The number of actual approved miraculous healings by the Vatican is of course much higher. Here are a number of points that increase the count higher than Duffin’s examination of 1,400 cases.
  • Duffin did not examine miracles used in the beatification process. 
  • John Paul relaxed the number of miracles needed for beatification and canonization from at least two (for each process) to one because he wanted Christians around the world to have as many role models as possible — for different professions, ages, personalities, etc. As a result, a large number of the canonization processes mentioned by Duffin have at least 2 miraculous healings in support.
  • Duffin’s list is incomplete since Duffin only examined cases up to 1999. Plenty of canonizations occurred between 2000-2020.

Is there any evidence for Jesus’ miracles? Yes, a whole darn lot!

“Even the most skeptical critics cannot deny that the historical Jesus carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcism.” – William Lane Craig

This may come as a surprise to you but there is a virtual consensus among contemporary scholars, including skeptical scholars, that the historical Jesus was a miracle worker — particularly, that he was a healer and exorcist who performed deeds that were viewed by his contemporaries as miracles.[1] The disagreement among scholars is not over whether Jesus performed miracles or not, but over how these miracles are to be interpreted (e.g. healings of organic illnesses and therefore pointing to divine causation, healings of psychosomatic illnesses, the result of the placebo effect, etc). Yes, the evidence for Jesus being a miracle worker is that good! 

This article is divided into three sections. In section I, we will examine the historical evidence for Jesus as a miracle worker. In section II, we will look at and address the responses of skeptics to this fact about Jesus. Finally, in section III, we will come to a conclusion to our entire discussion.

In this article, I will argue that the miracles of Jesus are best explained as a result of divine power and that naturalistic explanations (e.g. healings of psychosomatic illnesses or the result of the placebo effect) fail to completely and compellingly account for the data. With that said, let us begin our look at the evidence and see the critical support Jesus’ miracle-working enjoys.

I. The Historical Evidence

Jesus’ miracles satisfy various criteria of authenticity in varying degrees, with all of them coming together to form a vigorous case for the fact that he was historically a miracle worker. These criteria include the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms, the criterion of coherence, the criterion of dissimilarity, the criterion of embarrassment, and others. The support from these criteriaa will be discussed in subsections A – E below. There is also, remarkably, very good evidence that Jesus was believed by his contemporaries to have healed the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases, and even raise people from the dead during his ministry. The evidence for these types of healings will be discussed in subsection F. Afterward, we will close section I with a conclusion on the historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles.

Having laid out the structure for section I, we can now begin our discussion on how Jesus’ miracles enjoy support various criteria of authenticity, tackling first, the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms.

A. Multiple Attestation of Sources and Forms

Jesus’ miracles are attested in every Gospel source (Mark, Q, M, L, and John).[2] In the Gospels, there are fifteen non-overlapping healing accounts, seven non-overlapping accounts of exorcism, and three non-overlapping accounts of raising the dead.[3] Jesus’ miracles are also attested in several summary statements (e.g. Mk 1:32-34, Matt 4:23, Lk 6:17-19, etc). Outside the New Testament, Jesus’ miracles are attested by the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37 – 100 AD), who in his Antiquities, states that Jesus was a doer of “paradoxical deeds” (see footnote 4 for more information on Josephus’ attestation):

At this time [the rule of Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea] there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of paradoxical deeds, a teacher who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Gentile origin. And when Pilate at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[4]

The word “paradoxa” Josephus uses here can be translated into “startling” or “wondrous” in English. It is also the same word Josephus uses in another work of his to describe the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. Jesus’ miracles are also attested in later hostile sources, both Jewish and pagan — the Talmud and the pagan critic Celsus. The Talmud and Celsus both affirm that Jesus was a miracle worker but they attribute his actions to sorcery.[5] In the end, historians see attestation in two independent sources as good evidence for historicity. When it comes to the miracles of Jesus, we have attestation in a striking abundance of sources, with six of them stemming from the first century!

When it comes to the miracles Jesus performed, he is said to have performed healings (included here are raisings of the dead), exorcisms, and nature miracles, resulting in attestation in multiple literary forms.[6] Jesus’ miracles are also attested in various sayings attributed to him in the Gospels in which he refers to or speaks in the context of his miracle-working. These sayings reflect a number of different form-critical categories — the parable of the strong man (Mk 3:23-27), the dispute story in which Jesus answers the charge of his healing powers coming from the devil with two conditional sentences (Matt 12:27-28), one a rhetorical question, the other a declaration of fact, general biographical statements that summarize his own activity in terms of miracle-working (Matt 11:5//Lk 7:22), his instruction concerning the exorcist who is not one of his disciples (Mark 9:38-40), etc.[7]

In the end, Jesus’ miracles strongly satisfy the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms. As leading scholar on the historical Jesus, John Meier, states:

[T]he historical fact that Jesus performed extraordinary deeds deemed by himself and others to be miracles is supported most impressively by the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms … The miracle traditions about Jesus’ public ministry are already so widely attested in various sources and literary forms by the end of the first Christian generation that total fabrication by the early church is, practically speaking, impossible.[8]

B. Coherence

Jesus’ miracles also enjoy support from the criterion of coherence. According to this criterion, deeds and sayings of Jesus that fit well with secure aspects of the tradition (those that enjoy excellent critical support) are more likely to be historical.

Since Jesus’ miracle-working is so firmly supported by the criterion of multiple attestation of sources and forms and enjoys further support from other criteria of authenticity, Meier examined the deeds and sayings of Jesus related to his miracle-working in the Gospels. Ultimately, he found that they mesh very well with each other. As Meier remarks:

Our initial inventory of narratives and sayings has made it clear that we have here a grand example of various actions and sayings of Jesus converging, meshing, and mutually supporting each other What is remarkable in all this is how deeds and sayings cut across different sources and form-critical categories to create a meaningful whole. This neat, elegant, and unforced “fit” of the deeds and sayings of Jesus … argues eloquently for a basic historical fact: Jesus did perform deeds that he and some of his contemporaries considered miracles.[9]

Jesus’ miracles also fit well with other secure elements of the tradition. They cohere with Jesus’ success in drawing large crowds during his ministry, and his execution as engineered by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Although Jesus’ miracles were not the primary reason for his execution, they were likely an aggravating circumstance towards this result. In the end, Jesus’ miracles strongly satisfy the criterion of coherence. 

C. Dissimilarity

When it comes to the criterion of dissimilarity, several aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working are distinct from Jewish and pagan miracle traditions. This unique style of miracle-working, consistently found in the Gospel sources, argues for them originating from a single common source — Jesus himself.[11] The unique aspects of Jesus miracle-working are as follows: (1) he performed miracles by his own authority, (2) he combined teaching with miracles, (3) faith played an important role in his healings, and (4) his miracles were not ends in themselves (e.g. to glorify him), they had an eschatological significance. The criterion of dissimilarity may also be applied to the person of Jesus, who was certainly a unique individual. With that said, let us begin our discussion on the four unique aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working.

One, Jesus performed miracles by his own authority. The Old Testament prophets did not do anything like this. They believed themselves to be only mediators of God’s power, and so they asked God to help them and work through them. In contrast, Jesus carried out miracles through his own power and word. As scholar Raymond Brown notes:

[Unlike the Old Testament Jewish prophets] [t]he lines of demarcation between Jesus and God in this intervention are very vague. The kingdom comes both in and through Jesus. The power to do the healings and other miracles belongs to God but also to Jesus.[12] 

Two, Jesus combined teaching with miracles. He did not simply heal and exorcise, he also incorporated lessons about faith, the forgiveness of sins, salvation, the kingdom of God, etc in doing so. As Brown notes:

Jesus is remembered as combining teaching with miracles intimately related to his teaching, and that combination may be unique.[13]

Three, faith played an important role in Jesus’ miracles. Looking at the Gospel accounts, faith was important in the healing of an individual.[14] Jesus used healings, in fact, as opportunities to teach about, call forth, and encourage faith. As Meier notes:

 [T]he emphasis on faith (e.g., ‘your faith has saved you’), which is found in many Gospel miracle stories of healing or exorcism or in their larger context, is for the most part lacking in pagan or Jewish parallels.[15]

Four, Jesus’ miracles were not ends in themselves (e.g. to glorify himself), they had an eschatological significance.[16] During his ministry, Jesus went about proclaiming “the kingdom of God” (Matt 12:28, Lk 8:1, Jhn 3:3-5, etc). This phrase is tied to Daniel’s prophecy of the Messiah establishing God’s kingdom (Dan 2:39-45; 7:13-14). By proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, Jesus was saying that the kingdom referred to in Daniel had arrived. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms had an eschatological significance related to the establishment of this kingdom. According to Meier, Jesus’ exorcisms are “dramatic presentations and partial realizations of God’s eschatological triumph over Satan and the powers of evil through the actions of Jesus. They are a preliminary experience of the future kingdom of God, already present and victorious to some degree in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:27 parr.; Luke 11:20 par.).”[17] Jesus’ healings, on the other hand, “fulfill the prophecies of Isiah concerning the time of Israel’s definitive salvation. Hence they are also an implicit call to believe in the message and mission of the miracle-worker (Matt 11:5-6 par.).”[18] When it comes to the eschatological significance of Jesus’ miracles, scholars Theissen and Merz state:

The uniqueness of the miracles of the historical Jesus lies in the fact that healings and exorcisms which take place in the present are accorded an eschatological significance … Nowhere else do we find a charismatic miracle worker whose miraculous deeds are meant to be the end of an old world and the beginning of a new one.[19]

Lastly, the above distinct aspects of Jesus’ miracle-working may also be seen in light of the unique totality of his person. As noted by Meier:

[T]he overall configuration, pattern, or Gestalt of Jesus as popular preacher and teller of parables, plus authoritative interpreter of the Law and teacher of morality, plus proclaimer and realizer of the eschatological kingdom of God, plus miracle-worker actualizing his own proclamation has no adequate parallel in either the pagan or the Jewish literature of the time.[20]

In the end, the criterion of dissimilarity provides further support for the historicity of Jesus’ miracle-working.

D. Embarrassment

As for the criterion of embarrassment, Jesus’ miracles are attested in an early Jewish polemic recorded in Mark and Q (Mk 3:20-30; Matt 12:22-32 /Lk 11:14-23). The value of this polemic is that it shows how Jesus’ enemies viewed his ministry of healing and exorcising. They did not deny that Jesus possessed remarkable powers. On the contrary, they affirmed it but attributed its origins to the devil (Mk 3:22): “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons”. As scholar E.P. Sanders comments:

Jesus’ enemies did not suspect him of fraud, but of healing by calling on a demonic power.[21]

This polemic is likely authentic. In addition to being multiply attested and cohering well with the polemics found in the Talmud and the writings of Celsus, it satisfies the criterion of embarrassment. It is unlikely that the early Church would have invented a charge that cast Jesus in an ambiguous light. It is no surprise that Jesus’ response to this charge is also recorded (Mk 3:23-24): “If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?”. If this polemic and Jesus’ rebuttal to it were not historical, it begs the question — “Why answer a charge that was not leveled?”. Ultimately, as scholar N.T. Wright comments:

We must be clear that Jesus’ contemporaries, both those who became his followers and those who were determined not to become his followers, certainly regarded him as possessed of remarkable powers.  The church did not invent the charge that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul; but charges like that are not advanced unless they are needed as an explanation for quite remarkable phenomena.[22] 

 Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6), his own hometown, as well as his being unable to heal many individuals there due to lack of faith, is likely authentic as well. It is unlikely that the early Church would have invented such an event.

E. Other Criteria of Authenticity

Other criteria of authenticity include (1) the presence of Semitisms, (2) the naming of individuals and specific places that can be checked within living memory of Jesus, and (3) the presence of traits that reflect Jesus’ Palestinian environment.

The presence of Semitisms, or traces of Aramaic, indicate that a tradition is old and originated from Palestinian sources.

Specific identifiable names and places also argue in favor of an account’s historicity. Details such as these can be checked within living memory of Jesus. Communities in antiquity were smaller and tighter-knit. It is also highly likely that an extraordinary event such as curing blindness, a paralytic, or raising the dead would be known and remembered in a particular town or village.

The presence of Palestinian traits argues in favor of an account’s historicity as well. The environment of the early Church, with its post-resurrection faith and extensive ministry to the Gentiles, became increasingly detached from the spirit and culture of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Gospel narratives, however, do not only preserve the customs and actions of Palestinian Judaism but also expressions (e.g. “Son of David” or “He is a prophet”) that would have been replaced by other titles or expressions in the post-resurrection Church. Miracle stories that contain these traits are more likely to be historical.[23]

F. Healing the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases and raising the dead

Remarkably, there is strong evidence that Jesus did heal the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases, and raise people from the dead during his ministry. Jesus healing the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases, and raising the dead each enjoy multiple independent attestation (see footnote 24 for a breakdown).[24] Examining individual accounts of the above types of healings also reveals that many bear remarkable indicators of historicity (see Meier’s A Marginal Jew Volume Two: Mentor, Message and Miracles, which contains the most comprehensive critical examination of Gospel miracle narratives currently in print and spans 300+ pages). These include two stories of healing paralysis (Mk 2:1-12 and Jhn 5:1-9), all three stories of healing the blind in the Gospels (Mk 8:22-26; 10:46-52 and Jhn 9), and one story of raising the dead (Mk 5:21-43).[25] All of the types of healings in question are also attested to by Jesus’ summary of his ministry in Q (Matt 11:5-6//Lk 7:22-23):

Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.

This saying of Jesus enjoys strong critical support and is likely authentic: (1) it comes from the early Q source (which is dates between 40-60 AD, when many eyewitnesses were alive), (2) the saying sounds a lot like Jesus (fitting the Messianic secret, a Middle Eastern teaching style, and Jesus’ penchant for riddles) rather than his later followers, (3) the gospel for the “poor” coheres with other secure tradition about Jesus (Matt 5:3//Lk 6:20), (4) the saying exhibits Semitic structure and (5) the account lacks Christian understandings of Jesus and traditional Christian titles.[26] Most scholars today, including Meier, affirm the authenticity of Matt 11:5-6//Lk 7:22-23.[27] This saying suggests that Jesus healed multiple cases of the blindness, lameness, skin disease and death.

In light of the evidence for these types of healings, Meier takes the position that the historical Jesus claimed and was thought by at least some of his contemporaries to have healed the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases, and even raise people from the dead during his ministry. As Meier comments:

Unless we wish to throw the criteria of historicity overboard in favor of a protean Jesus who always confirms to the religious predilections of every individual, the criteria impose on us the picture of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew who performed startling deeds that both he and at least some of his audience judged to be miraculous power. To Jesus’ mind these acts — including what he claimed to be acts of raising the dead — both proclaimed and actualized, however imperfectly, the kingdom of God … To excise these acts from the ministry of the historical Jesus is to excise a good deal of what he was all about.[28] John Meier

G. Conclusion on Jesus as a miracle worker

In the end, the evidence from the criteria of historicity come together to form a powerful case for the fact that the historical Jesus was a miracle worker. As leading scholar on Jesus’ miracles, Graham Twelftre, comments on the subject:

In answer to the question ‘Did Jesus perform miracles?’ we have to reply with an unequivocal and resounding ‘Yes!’ … The necessary conclusion, in light of our inquiry, is that there is hardly any aspect of the life of the historical Jesus which is so well and widely attested as that he conducted unparalleled wonders.[29]

Twelftre then notes that Jesus being a miracle-worker is affirmed by almost all contemporary scholars:

There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works.[30] 

Being clear, this virtual consensus includes skeptical scholars such as Crossan, Bultmann, Grant, Vermes, and Fredrickson, to give a number of notable examples.[31] See their following statements below: 

Jesus was both an exorcist and a healer.[32] John Dominic Crossan

[T]here can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles.[33] Rudolf Bultmann

[B]y far the deepest impression Jesus made upon his contemporaries was as an exorcist and a healer … In any case he was not only believed to possess some quite special curative gifts but evidently, in some way or other he actually possessed them.[34]Michael Grant

[A]cts of healing and exorcism were seen as tangible confirmation of the validity and compelling character of his teaching.[35] Geza Vermes

[W]e note that Jesus as exorcist, healer (even to the point of raising the dead), and miracle worker is one of the strongest, most ubiquitous, and most variously attested depictions in the Gospels. All strata of this material–Mark, John, M-traditions, L-traditions, and Q–make this claim. This sort of independent multiple attestation supports arguments for the antiquity of a given tradition, implying that its source must lie prior to its later, manifold expressions, perhaps in the mission of Jesus himself … Yes, I think that Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles.[36] Paula Fredriksen

This then brings us to the question, how do skeptics respond to this historical fact about Jesus?

II. The Skeptical Response

When it comes to Jesus’ miracles, skeptics fire back in a number of ways. (In our discussion below, I will also include popular objections by Internet skeptics). One, they call attention to the fact that there were other known miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. Two, they point out that Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, was also said to have performed miracles. Three, they claim that ancient people were gullible and accepted miracle claims uncritically. Four, they say that the illnesses Jesus healed had psychosomatic roots. Five, they say that Jesus’ healings were the result of the placebo effect. Six, they say that the individuals Jesus raised from the dead were not actually dead but apparently dead, being in a state of coma or catalepsy. As we shall see, all of these attempts to downplay and explain Jesus’ miracles under a naturalistic worldview have serious problems. In the discussion to follow, I respond to these objections one by one below.

Objection 1: There Were Other Miracle-Workers Around the Time of Jesus

The first thing to point out here is that the number of miracle-workers around the time of Jesus is extremely small. As Twelftree notes:

In the period of two hundred years on each side of the life of the historical Jesus the number of miracle stories attached to any historical figure is astonishingly small.[37]

We have, in total, four claimed miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. These are Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben-Dosa, Vespanian, and Apollonius of Tyana. 

Honi the Circle-Drawer (1st century BC) and Hanina ben-Dosa (1st century AD) belong to the Jewish tradition. The miracles attributed to these men are attested in the Mishna, which is a 3rd century AD written collection of Jewish oral traditions. According to the Mishna, people asked Honi to pray for rain during a drought. Honi did so but his prayers were not answered, so he drew a circle around him and vowed not to leave it until God answered his prayer for rain. A few drops begin to fall. Honi complains that this is too little, so it started to pour. Honi then asks God to make the rain calmer and it began to rain normally. Based on this account, Honi appears to be able to get anything he wants from God through prayer. As for Hanina ben-Dosa, the Mishna indicates that he was remembered for having a special ministry of praying for the sick and having the ability to know which of his prayers for healing would be answered and which would not. 

Vespanian, a Roman emperor (reigned 69-79 AD), was also known to have performed a healing miracle. According to Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus, while Vespanian was in Alexandria on the way to Rome to assume the throne (ca. 69 AD), he was approached by two men, one of whom was blind and the other was lame. These men threw themselves in front of Vespanian and asked for healing. At first, Vespanian scoffed, but the men persisted, saying that the local deity, Sarapis, had sent them. Hearing this and having already received prophecies about his good fortune, Vespanian complied with their request and attempted to heal them — and they were healed. 

Most startlingly, Apollonius of Tyana (ca. 15-97 AD), was a pagan preacher and philosopher who was said to have healed the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead like Jesus did. These deeds of Apollonius are attested in a work by the Greek sophist Philostratus in the early 3rd century.

In the subsections below, let us analyze these miracle-worker claims further. In particular, we will discuss the dates of their written attestations and the problems their miracle claims possess. Afterward, we will also discuss the coherence of these miracle claims with a Christian worldview — that is, how these miracles pose no problem for the Christian even if they did occur.

A. Written Attestation

The written attestations to Jesus’ miracles are much closer to the time of Jesus’ life in comparison to the cases of almost all other miracle-workers around the time of Jesus. As noted by scholar Meier:

[T]he early dating of the literary testimony to Jesus’ miracles, i.e., the closeness of the dates of the written documents to the alleged miracles of Jesus’ life, is almost unparalleled for the period.[38]

Going by the standard dating, the first gospel, Mark, was written approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus.[39] Matthew and Luke, the next two gospels, were written around 50-55 years after the death of Jesus. Lastly, John was written around 60-65 years after the death of Jesus. In the end, all four gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount — that is, the period in which eyewitnesses or their hearers were alive. As scholar Richard Bauckham notes:

The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount. Mark’s Gospel was written well within the lifetime of many of the eye-witnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at the point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put into writing. This is a highly significant fact, entailed not by unusually early datings of the Gospels but by the generally accepted ones.[40]

Compare the case of Jesus to that of Honi the Circle Drawer, who is mentioned in the Mishna over 250 years after his death, or to Hanina ben-Dosa, who is mentioned in the Mishna over 100 years after his death. Compare Jesus’ case to that of Apollonarius of Tyana, whom we know hardly anything about prior to the writing of his biography by Philostratus around 217-220 AD — approximately 120 years after the death of Apollonius. The only individual whose attestation to performing miracles surpasses that of Jesus is Vespanian, whose healing was first recorded by Suetonius some 30 years after the supposed event. 

In the end, the earliness of the sources for Jesus’ miracles far surpasses those of Honi, Hanina ben-Dosa, and Apollonius. As a result, the strength of their witness is much superior.

B. Problems with Miracle-Worker Claims in Question

When examined further, more problems arise for the miracle-working claims of Honi, Hanina, Vespanian, and Apollonius.

When it comes to Honi, Josephus mentions him in his writings 100 years earlier than the Mishna (150 years after the death of Honi) and his account of Honi is much more simple. In his Antiquities 14.2.1, Josephus mentions a certain Onias (Honi in Greek), “a just man and beloved of God, who once during a drought prayed that God would bring the drought to an end. Listening to [Onias’ prayer], God caused rain to fall”. As Meier says, the account of Honi in the Mishna is an embellished tradition that has gone a long way from what we read in Josephus’ account. Stripping away the embellishments, the enduring core of the story is that Honi was known for having his prayer answered in an extraordinary way in a time of drought.[41] Another problem with Honi’s claim is that his fame came as a result of a single incident. If we were to grant Honi’s single remarkable case of answered prayer as sufficient to make him a miracle-worker, then as Meier notes, the number of miracle-workers in history would rise incredibly.[42] It is not a sensible nor judicious standard. The last issue with Honi’s claim is that he is not a miracle worker in the strict sense as Jesus is. He does not directly perform a miracle by giving commands or using gestures but turns to God in prayer. 

As for Hanina ben-dosa, he is also not a miracle worker in the strict sense. Like Honi, he was also known for his effective prayers. As Meier states:

Jesus knowingly and freely works the miracle himself. He is in this strict, rigorous sense a miracle-worker. Not so Honi and Hanina, especially in the earliest traditions. In the Onias/Honi-story in Josephus and in the Hanina story m. Ber. 5:5, what is central is the holy man’s prayer to God. Neither holy man directly works a miracle.[43]

Ultimately, due to the late attestation for Honi and Hanina, Meier concludes saying: 

[I]n the end one must admit that all the written sources are later than Jesus and almost all of them centuries later. I would venture to claim that, beyond the fact that around the turn of the era there existed two Jews in Palestine named Honi and Hanina, both of whom were famous for having their prayers answered in extraordinary ways, nothing definite can be said.[44]

As for Vespanian, his miracle story suffers from a number of problems, with the first being critical — in all likelihood, it was made up. Vespanian did not belong to the rightful line of emperors (the line of Caesar) and was in serious need of legitimacy — which this miracle provided. As Meier notes:

Suetonius and Tacitus seem to tell the whole story with a twinkle in their eyes and smiles on their lips, an attitude probably shared by Vespasian. The whole event looks like a 1st-century equivalent of a “photo opportunity” staged by Vespasian’s P.R. team to give the new emperor divine legitimacy.[45]

Moreover, this is the only known healing miracle that Vespanian was said to have performed. We do not have any other case of a Roman emperor performing a healing miracle as well. In light of these, the dubiousness of Vespanian’s miracle story is increased further.

Moving on to Apollonius of Tyana, his claim suffers from four serious problems. One, genre-wise, Philostratus’ work is a blend of bios and romance (romance can be compared to today’s fictional novels). This can be seen in the rhetorical devices employed in the work which according to Meier are:

[S]upernatural portents [or omens], short dialogues on popular issues of the day [during the time of Philostratus], colorful archaelogical lore, magic and/or miracles, rapid scene changes, descriptions of fabled far-off lands, travelogues and erotic episodes (often with homoerotic overtones). Imaginary ‘official’ letters, inscriptions, and edicts which help to create the illusion of sober history.[46]

On the other hand, the Gospels belong solely to the genre of bios.[47] Two, there is strong evidence that Philostratus’ main source for his work (and supposedly, his only primary source as well), the diary of Damis, is a fiction of Philostratus or the work of an earlier pseudepigrapher. This is in fact the position of “a clearly greater number of scholars”.[48] According to scholar Howard Kee Clark, the reason for this is because “…the material allegedly drawn from Damis is so full of historical anachronisms and gross geographical errors that one could not have confidence in Damis as a reporter if there actually were a diary”.[49] Three, there is good evidence that Philostratus borrowed miracle stories from the Christian Gospels to flesh out his work on Apollonius.[50] As scholar Craig Keener notes, “a number” of accounts in Philostratus’ work resemble reports from the Christian Gospels, which were known and well in circulation during his time.[51] To give one example, the story of Apollonius resuscitating a young Roman bride looks suspiciously like it combined the Gospel stories of the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43) and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17). Four, the world that Philostratus writes about in The Life firmly reflects his own era as opposed to the first century world of Apollonius. As Kee Clark notes:

[W]hat Philostratus reports tells us a great deal about the author and his time — that is, at the turn of the third century — but provides no unassailable evidence about Apollonius and his epoch.[52]

This is a serious point that casts doubt on the reliability of Philostratus’ work as a whole. It is also a quality characteristic of ancient novels, which tend to reflect the environment of their authors far better than the environment in which the story is set. Ultimately, Philostratus’ work on Apollonius is very dubious. For this reason, Meier concludes:

[T]he serious questions that arise about the sources and historical reliability of the Life of Apollonius make it difficult to speak in any detail of the 1st century Apollonius as a parallel figure to Jesus of Nazareth. The miracle stories in the Life are indeed useful for ahistorical, synchronic comparisons of literary patterns found in miracle stories and places; as a basis for historical judgments about 1st-century figures they are very shaky.[53]

C. Coherence with a Christian Worldview

Even if we were to grant that the above individuals performed miracles or effected miracles through prayer, it would still pose no theological problem for the Christian. Christians affirm the existence of God, the devil, and the reality of the spiritual world. When it comes to the spiritual world, in particular, Christians recognize that people have interacted with it throughout history and continue to interact with it today.

The cases of Honi and Hanina ben-dosa fit in the Christian worldview because Christians worship the same God as the Jews. Christianity affirms the truth of the Jewish tradition and the special relationship their people have with God (Deut 7:6). Furthermore, the case of Hanina ben-dosa also coheres well with the Christian miracle tradition, which has many saints who were able to heal people as a result of effective prayer as well. See Bl. Solanus Casey and Francis Houle for example.[54] 

Assuming that Apollonius was some sort of pagan magician who possessed remarkable powers, this would still pose no problems for the Christian. Under a Christian worldview, Apollonius’ abilities could be said to stem from the devil, who according to Christianity, is active in the world. Acts of the Apostles mentions how St. Paul was able to exorcise a demonic spirit of divination out of a woman (Acts 16:16-18). Acts also mentions a pagan sorcerer named Simon who was able to amaze people with his sorcery. After seeing the apostles and the miracles they performed in the name of Jesus, however, Simon ended up converting to Christianity (Acts 8:9-25). Revelation 16:13-16 also mentions the devil’s capability to produce counterfeit signs. A lot can be said on Christianity and demonic activity but ultimately, the Church condemns engaging in the occult (CCC 2116-2117), not only because it is a violation of the first commandment (Exo 20:3; Deut 19:9-12) but also because it puts one at risk of demonic infestation, obsession, oppression, and possession.[55] It is the main avenue through which demons can enter the lives of individuals. The Church also affirms that the devil possesses preternatural abilities and that these can and do manifest in occult activities.[56] 

In the end, this skeptical objection does not pose problems for the Christian. Even if he were to grant that Honi, Hanina, and Apollonius did what they were said to have done, their actions would fit within his worldview. 

Objection 2: The Miracles of Muhammad

Another objection to Jesus’ miracles is that Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, also performed miracles.

The problem with this objection is that the Koran explicitly states that Muhammad never performed any miracles. In fact, the Koran recounts people questioning Muhammads’ lack of miracles several times — “Why has no sign been sent down upon him [Muhammad] from his Lord?” (Q 6:37), “If only a miracle could come down to him from his Lord (we will then believe)” (Q 13:7), and, comparing Muhammad to an Old Testament prophet, “Why has he [Muhammad] not been given the like of that Moses was given?” (Q 28:48). 

In response to questions about his lack of miracles, the Koran records Muhammad saying that miracles are for God alone and that he is just a “warner” (Q 29:50). The Quran also criticizes unbelievers for not believing in Muhammad due to his lack of miracles, because the Koran itself is the miracle: “Is it not enough of a miracle that we sent down to you this book [the Quran]?” (Q 29:51). According to the Koran, the reason why Allah did not send miracles to support Muhammad is that previous generations had rejected them: “What stopped us [Allah] from sending the miracles is that the previous generations have rejected them” (Q 17:59).

The miracles of Muhammad that skeptics refer to come from biographies written long after the death of Muhammad. To be precise, one or two centuries later. Ultimately, these miracles were invented to strengthen the credibility of Islam and its prophet in a multi-religious context. As stated by Ayman S. Ibrahim, a post-doctoral fellow of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University:

In the classical Muslim period … Muslim authors decided to write the Biography of Muhammad, a century or two after his death, and added various miraculous elements, such as him feeding crowds after the multiplication of food, healing sick people, and even manifesting authority over nature. The similarities with pre-Islamic sacred writings are evident. There was a need (as Islam presented itself in a multi-religious context in the conquered lands) of a specific depiction of Muhammad with certain characteristics that appealed to that era.[57]

In the end, the miracles of Muhammad are not only dubious, they also go against the clear witness of the Quran.

Objection 3: Ancient People were Gullible

Another objection against Jesus’ miracles is that ancient people were gullible. As a result, they accepted claims of being able to work miracles uncritically. This objection suffers from a number of problems.

One, this objection displays an incredible amount of chronological snobbery. Doubt and skepticism are a part of the human condition. We have always had it as a species. In fact, there are multiple passages about doubt and skepticism in the Bible. Focusing on the New Testament alone, doubt and skepticism are found during Jesus’ ministry (Mk 4:35-41; 5:35-42; 6:1-3; 9:19-25, Matt 13:54-57; 14:22-31 and Jn 6:32-68; 7:5) during the empty tomb and resurrection accounts (Matt 28:16-17, Lk 24:9-11; 24:40-43 and Jn 20:24-28,) and during the post-Easter missionary efforts regarding the resurrection and others (Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 1:22-23, Acts 17:31-32). It must be also noted that the importance of faith was stressed by Jesus during his ministry — in his teaching as well as in his miracle-working. Faith could not have been a major theme if doubt were not a common phenomenon. All of these clearly demonstrate that ancient people were capable of doubt and skepticism and that they knew the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary in their lives (and for this reason, had doubts of the latter).

Two, a person suffering from an illness or disability would know if his condition has truly been cured, as someone who intimately experienced and suffered from the condition. A person is normally in the best position to assess his own physical health, and know if he is still suffering from illness or disability, experienced serious progress in terms of recovery, or has recovered completely. If a person says he was once sick or disabled and is no longer, he is very likely correct in his assessment. If he is wrong in his assessment, he will soon come to realize his error as he feels the symptoms of his illness or disability. Having said that, individuals who were healed by Jesus would undoubtedly be ecstatic about the healing they received and the extraordinary experience that occurred to them. They would likely testify about what had happened to them to others and become grateful witnesses to Jesus’ ministry of healing and exorcism.

Three, Jesus’ ministry was public and his healings took place in the presence of his disciples, large crowds, and his enemies. They were open to public scrutiny! Healings that Jesus was well-attested to have done (e.g. the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases, and raising the dead) are also of the type that could be witnessed externally by observers. Jesus’ healings could also be attested to by various types of credible witnesses — the person who was healed, those who knew the recipient of the healing (e.g. his family members, friends, and other members of his community) and saw him after it took place, and Jesus’ own disciples.

Ultimately, not only were ancient people capable of doubt and skepticism but, being contemporaries of Jesus (who could be met and observed) and living at a time where eyewitnesses to Jesus’ deeds were at their highest, they had excellent reasons for believing that he performed miracles and healed certain people. This would especially be the case for the disciples, who were Jesus’ followers and were able to see his healings and exorcisms up close countless times.

Objection 4: Jesus’ Healings had Psychosomatic Roots

The fourth objection raised against Jesus’ miracles is that the illnesses he healed had psychosomatic roots (they stem from internal conflict or stress rather than an actual medical illness or disability).[58] When it comes to Jesus’ healing of the lame and the blind, skeptics say that these were cases of a category of psychosomatic illness called “conversion disorder”. As for Jesus’ healings of leprosy, skeptics say that these illnesses were not actually leprosy, but some sort of psychosomatic illness that gave the appearance of a skin disease. Lastly, when it comes to Jesus’ exorcisms of those who were demon-possessed, skeptics attribute this to conversion disorder (seizures) and dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder). There are five problems with this objection.

One, as Keener notes, the Gospel reports bear little resemblance to psychotherapy — the avenue through which Jesus would have healed assuming he cured psychosomatic illnesses.[59] Jesus effectively healing psychosomatic illnesses entails that he employed (directly or indirectly) some sort of psychotherapy on those he healed. The problem with this is that the Gospel accounts hardly depict anything like psychotherapy. Jesus is not described as asking probing questions to understand the internal or psychological struggles of those he healed. In the same way, recipients of Jesus’ healing do not share personal information about their supposed internal conflict. We also do not see Jesus comforting or giving specific advice to individuals regarding their supposed internal conflict — again, because the individuals in the narratives do not share any personal information of the sort. In fact, when you look at the healing narratives in the Gospels, the interaction between Jesus and the recipient of the healing can be described as “brief” and “very surface-level”. Even if we were to grant the assumptions of skeptics that the people healed in the Gospels had illnesses that were psychosomatic and that they had particular internal conflicts that were addressed by Jesus’ words or actions, it does beg the question — would such a deep internal conflict (to the point that it manifests as an illness) be effectively addressed by such a brief and general encounter? Ultimately, the idea that Jesus was some sort of excellent proto-psychotherapist does not enjoy inspiring support from our sources.

Two, the idea that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses does not cohere with the fact that he was said to have been a prolific healer. If Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses, then he would have failed in the great majority of his healing attempts since most illnesses are organic and not psychosomatic. This, however, does not correspond with the Jesus attested to in our sources. As scholar Justin Meggit comments on the illnesses Jesus healed:

[I]t seems unlikely that their aetiologies were predominantly psychosomatic, the earliest records that we possess of Jesus’ healing ministry do not indicate that he gained his reputation by only healing a small percentage of those that came to him. Yet, it is clear that if the success of Jesus was limited to those individuals that have a psychosomatic basis alone surely such a pattern should be discernible in the records. However, only in the tradition about Jesus’ healings in Nazareth do we get the indication that Jesus could only heal a few of those that came to him (Matthew 13:58; Mark 6.5).[60]

Three, a number of healings in the Gospels cannot have been psychosomatic. John 9:1-34 specifically states that the man Jesus healed was born blind, so he could not have been psychosomatic.[61] All accounts of Jesus raising of the dead (Mk 5:21-23; Lk 7:11-17; Jhn 11:1-45) cannot be psychosomatic as well, since death is not a psychologically induced state.

Four, other illnesses in the Gospels were also said to have been suffered by the individual for a very long time (Mk 5:24-34; Mk 9:21-27; Jn 5:1-9). It is highly likely that chronic or long-term illnesses are organic and not psychosomatic.[62]

Five, when you look at Jesus’ healings in the Gospels, they were carried out instantly. Take, for example, the healing of the paralytic at the pool at Siloam in John 5:9 (“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked…”) or the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:52 (“Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road”). Psychosomatic healings often take time but when Jesus healed, it was instantaneous.[63] This characteristic of Jesus’ healing argues against naturalistic explanations for his miracles because repeated instantaneous cures of different psychosomatic illnesses (e.g. blindness, “leprosy”, “demon-possession”, etc) beggars belief.[64] As noted by scholars Karl Olav Sandnes and Jan-Olav Henriksen, appeals to psychotherapy or the placebo effect fail to account for the immediacy of Jesus’ healings:

Analogies from psychotherapy or placebo may offer partial help in understanding the phenomenon of healing, but both approaches fail to come to terms with the immediacy of Jesus’ healings. The analogies are conditioned on time and gradual change.[65]

Objection 5: Jesus’ Healings are the Result of the Placebo Effect.

Another objection to Jesus’ miracles is that they were the result of the placebo effect. People believed Jesus could heal them and so they “psyched themselves” into recovery. There are three problems with this objection.

One, (assuming organic illnesses) Jesus was believed by his contemporaries to have healed dramatic ailments such as blindness, paralysis, and leprosy. These are not the type of conditions that people recover from via the placebo effect.

Two, Jesus was believed to have raised people from the dead, a state which cannot be reversed via the placebo effect.

Three, this objection fails to account for the immediacy of Jesus’ healings. This is because healings through the placebo effect take place gradually over time.[66]

Objection 6: Jesus’ Raisings from the Dead were Cases of Coma or Catalepsy

Since Jesus’ raisings of the dead cannot be explained as a healed psychosomatic illness or the result of the placebo effect, skeptics say that these individuals were not actually dead, they were only apparently dead — being in a state of coma or catalepsy. These explanations, however, also face difficulty from the immediacy of Jesus’ healings, since coma and catalepsy are deep states beyond the control of the individual, who may not even be conscious. It must also be noted that the immediate recovery described in the Gospels shows the recipients talking and moving around (i.e. sitting up, standing up, and walking) right away (Mk 5:41-42; Lk 7:14-15; Jhn 11:41-44). This does not cohere with recoveries from coma or catalepsy since it takes time for the bodies to wake up from such deep inactivity (and in the case of coma, recover from serious damage as well).

Although it is possible, in the case of catalepsy, for a person’s body to have begun to awake prior to Jesus’ visit and then for the individual to show signs of life at the moment of Jesus’ healing, it would still be an amazing coincidence that would make one wonder if it were even repeatable. This brings us to the next problem with this skeptical objection — Jesus was believed to have raised the dead multiple times during his ministry.

The vast majority of people who are believed to be dead are actually dead. Cases of people organically waking up in morgues are incredibly rare. Now, in order to affirm this skeptical explanation, we are supposed to believe that these incredibly rare cases coincided with the exact moment following Jesus’ commands and that this occurred multiple times? This is a huge stretch but even if we were to assume that this happened, its coherence with the remarkable recoveries described in the Gospels is still questionable — “Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around…” (Mk 5:42) or “The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Lk 7:15).

III. Conclusion on Jesus’ Miracles

In the end, the historicity of Jesus’ miracles must be confronted. As scholars Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans state:

Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus’ ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as “miracles”.[67]

Impressively, the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is so good that we can even say, more specifically, that he claimed and was believed by his contemporaries to have healed the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases and raise people from the dead during his ministry.

Comparing the evidence for Jesus’ miracles with that of other claimed miracle-workers around his time, we see that the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is far superior in terms of critical support. Furthermore, when examined more closely, we find that some claimed miracle-workers do not classify as such in the strict sense like Jesus, while dubious claims and sources cast serious doubt on the historicity and credibility of other miracle-worker claims.

When it comes to naturalistic explanations put forward by skeptics for the miracles of Jesus (e.g. psychosomatic illnesses, the placebo effect, and coma and catalepsy) we find that they suffer from significant difficulties. The possibility that Jesus only healed psychosomatic illnesses faces difficulty from the facts that (1) the Gospels bear little resemblance to psychotherapy, (2) Jesus was said to have been a prolific healer, (3) a number of conditions in the Gospels cannot have been psychosomatic, (4) other illnesses in the gospels are unlikely to be psychosomatic and (5) that Jesus’ healings were said to immediate. On the other hand, the possibility that Jesus’ healings were the result of the placebo effect faces difficulty from the facts that (1) Jesus was believed to have healed dramatic ailments such as lameness, blindness, and leprosy, (2) Jesus was believed to have raised people from the dead and that (3) his healings were said to be immediate. The explanation that Jesus’ raisings of the dead were cases of comatose or catalepsy also faces difficult from (1) the immediacy and rapid recovery of Jesus’ raisings of the dead and (2) the fact that he was believed to have raised the dead multiple times during his ministry.

In the end, our survey of skeptical explanations shows that they possess substansial tension with the evidence and fail to completely and compellingly explain the data.

On the other hand, (1) Jesus being a prolific healer, (2) his healings of the lame, the blind, those with skin diseases and his raisings of the dead, (3) the immediacy of his healings, (4) his positive perception among his disciples who observed his healings and exorcisms up close multiple times and concluded that they were miracles, and (5) the charged religious context in which his miracles took place (these miracles were carried out by Jesus, who claimed to be Israel’s long-awaited Messiah and God’s Son in some unique sense, as well as strove to proclaim and realize the kingdom of God) — all of these point to Jesus’ miracles being the result of divine power, as well as the truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This explanation faces no tension with evidence and succeeds in explaining the data fully and compellingly.


  1. As stated by leading scholar on Jesus’ miracles, Graham Twelftree: “There is now almost unanimous agreement among Jesus questers that the historical Jesus performed mighty works” (The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206).

Scholar Graham Stanton also notes that those who doubt this fact about Jesus are few: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered” (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, pg. 67).

The evidence is so firm that as scholar Luke Timothy Johnson states: “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death” (The Real Jesus, pg. 121).

Here are more quotes from other known scholars reflecting the consensus on the subject:

“There is no doubt that Jesus worked miracles, healed the sick and cast out demons.” – Gerd Theissen (The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, pg. 277)

“There is agreement on the basic facts: Jesus performed miracles, drew crowds and promised the kingdom to sinners.” – E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, pg. 157)

“The evidence for Jesus as a miracle-worker is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims we could make about earliest Christianity; miracles characterized Jesus’ historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did … there is little reason to suppose that Jesus would have developed a reputation as a wonder-worker if he did not engage in such activities”. – Craig Keener (The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, pg. 241)

“Scholars have come to realize that one cannot dismiss Jesus’s miracles simply on modern rationalist grounds, for the oldest traditions show him as a healer.” – Raymond Brown (The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, pg. 143-144)

“Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” – Marcus Borg (Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, pg. 61).

2. Behind the four gospels lie 5 independent traditions — Mark, Q, M (Matthew special), L (Luke special) and J (the independent Johannine tradition). Currently, the majority view in scholarship is that Mark was the first gospel written, followed by Matthew and Luke, and then followed by John. M refers to material in Mark. Q refers to a shared common source that Matthew and Luke drew upon in composing their gospels that Mark did not know about. M and L refer to unique sources that Matthew and Luke had that are not found in either Mark or Q. Lastly, J refers to material found in John.

Going beyond early attestations to Jesus’ miracles (Mark, Q, M, L, J and Josephus), Jesus’ miracles are also attested to in early Christian writings (2nd century), the writings of Celsus (2nd century) and the Babylonian Talmud (6th century). 

When it comes to early Christian writings, Jesus’ miracles are attested to in works by Quadratus and Irenaeus. Although these writings of theirs as a whole have been lost to time, the passages in them which attest to Jesus’ miracles have been preserved by the 4th century Church historian Eusebius, who had access to their works during his time and quoted them in his Ecclestical History.

Quadratus was an early Christian apologist who was born in the second half of the first century and died around 129 AD. He states that some of those healed by Jesus lived into his lifetime:  “But the works of our Saviour were always present, for they were true, those who were cured, those who rose from the dead, who not merely appeared as cured and risen, but were constantly present, not only while the Saviour was living, but even for some time after he had gone, so that some of them survived even to our own time” (Hist. eccl. 4.3.1). 

Irenaeus (ca.  130-202 AD) was an early Church father, and in a letter to Florinus, he recalls how he listened to bishop Polycarp during his youth and how Polycarp spoke about Jesus’ miracles as told to him by the disciples:

“When I was still a boy I saw you [Florinus] in Lower Asia with Polycarp, when you had high status at the imperial court and wanted to gain his favor.  I remember events from those days more clearly than those that happened recently…so that I can even picture the place where the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, his comings and goings, his character, his personal appearance, his discourses to the crowds, and how he reported his discussions with John and others who had seen the Lord.  He recalled their very words, what they reported about the Lord and his miracles and his teaching — things that Polycarp had heard directly from eyewitnesses of the Word of life and reported in full harmony with Scripture” (Hist. eccl. 5.20).

Polycarp (ca.  69-155) was a Christian bishop who was instructed by the apostles. He was even ordained by the apostle John himself (who was said to have lived a long life). As Church father Tertullian states in his work “The Prescription against Heretics”, chapter. 32, nos. 1-2:

“If there be any heresies which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreoever, continued stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter”

Celsus, a fierce pagan critic of Christianity, says that Jesus’ miracles were the result of magic in his work “The True Word” (ca. 177-180 AD):  “It was by magic that [Jesus] was able to do the miracles which he appears to have done” (Contra Celsum 1.6 38 68). Celsus’ work has also been lost to time but passages of his work have been preserved by the Church Father Origen, who responds to his critique of Christianity in his Contra Celsum.  On the other hand, the Babylonian Talmud states that Jesus practiced “sorcery” and that he “enticed and led Israel astray” (b. Sanh. 43a).

3. The 15 stories of healing miracles in the gospels can be divided into five categories — healing of paralytics (4 cases), healing of the blind (3 cases), healing of leprosy (2 cases), raising the dead (3 cases)  and general (6 cases). This general category includes a variety of illnesses: a healing of fever of Peter’s mother in law (Mk 1:29-31/Matt 8:14-15 /Lk 4:38-39), a woman with hemorrhage (Mk 5:24-34/Matt 9:20-22/Lk 8:43-48), a deaf-mute (Mk 7:31-37), a servant with a grave illness (Matt 8:5-13/Lk 7:1-10), dropsy (Lk 14:1-6) and a cut-off ear (Lk 22:51).

4. Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.3.3). Although the passage in this work by Josephus was tampered by a Christian interpolator, the passage I quoted is widely agreed on by scholars (even skeptical scholars) to be authentic.  The portions of interpolation are obvious and clumsy, and a Christian interpolator would not have used the word “paradoxical” to describe Jesus’ miracles (paradoxōn is only used once in the New Testament, in Lk 5:26, and it is also a fairly neutral term) but “signs” or “wonders”. As mentioned already, Josephus also uses the word paradoxōn in another work when describing the miracles of the Jewish prophet Elisha. Other portions of the agreed-upon authentic core also have very good reasons for being legitimate. For example, the beginning “Now about this time…” is used by Josephus as a way of introducing a new topic many times in his work. There are also no early Christian parallels that refer to Jesus merely as “a wise man”, but this is a term used by Josephus several times, such as for Solomon and Daniel. The use of the word φῦλον (“phylon” – “race, tribe”) is also not used by Christians about themselves in any works of the time, but Josephus uses it elsewhere when he talks about nations or other distinct groups. All of the above elements mentioned are distinctively Josephean. 

5. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 241

6. As for Jesus’ nature miracles, they are disputed among scholars because they more readily indicate supernatural events. For a book on this subject see “The Nature Miracles of Jesus: Problems, Perspectives and Prospects” (edited by Graham Twelftree), which features essays from different scholars on both sides of the aisle, for and against. 

It is worth noting that among the nature miracles in the gospels, Meier finds that the story of the feeding of the multitude possesses remarkable historical indicators and likely goes back to some event during Jesus’ ministry (pgs. 959-967). It is the only miracle story in the gospels other than the resurrection to be recounted in all four gospels, and according to Meier it is also recounted twice in Mark and Matthew — the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 (though other scholars see these as two separate events). In terms of attestation, it is independently attested in Mark and John, and according to Meier, two variant forms of the tradition lying behind Mark’s gospel, which suggests, a long tradition history “reaching back to the early days of the first Christian generation”. As a result, the feeding of the multitude is supported by “an unusually strong attestation of multiple sources”.  In addition to this, the miracle account also satisfies the criterion of coherence strongly. As Meier says, Jesus regularly spoke of the kingdom of God under the image of a banquet and was known for dining with others, including sinners (e.g. Mk 2:15-17, Matt 11:18-19, Lk 7:33-34; Lk 15:1-2;19:1-10). In the end, this habit and characteristic of Jesus culminates in the Last Supper itself. 

Ultimately, Meier states: “In my opinion, the criteria of both multiple attestation and coherence make it likely that, amid the various celebrations of table fellowship Jesus hosted during his ministry, there was one especially memorable one: memorable because of the unusual number of participants, memorable also because, unlike many meals held in towns and villages, this one was held by the Sea of Galilee … What, more precisely, happened at this memorable meal of fellowship among Jesus and his followers by the Sea of Galilee has been a subject of great speculation, some highly imaginative, by modern exegetes … Whether something actually miraculous took place is not open to verification by the means available to the historian. A decision pro or con will ultimately depend on one’s worldview, not on what purely historical investigation can tell us about the event. 

7. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622.  

8. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 630. 

When it comes to Meier, who I relied on significantly in this article, I want to point out that while he is a Catholic priest, his approach towards the historical Jesus is moderate (neither conservative nor liberal). He defines his approach as imagining a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Agnostic scholar locked in the basement of the Harvard Divinity school library and not being allowed to emerge until they hammer out a document of agreement about the historical Jesus. According to Meier, each scholar will not be completely satisfied and will have to make concessions. Ultimately, his approach is a solid academic exercise at compromise among people who passionately disagree with each other. As a result, the fact that Meier comes to the conclusions that he does regarding the evidence for Jesus’ miracles is very impressive — given his reputation and approach. 

9. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622 and 623

10. As scholar James Tabor notes: “Huge crowds gathered to hear him preach and to witness the reported healings and exorcisms.” (The Jesus Dynasty). 

Paula Friedrickson, another scholar, comments: “An ability to work cures, further, coheres with another datum from Jesus’ mission: He had a popular following, which such an ability helps to account for” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).

11. Spitzer, God So Loved The World, pg. 201-202.

12. Brown, Introduction to New Testament Christology, pg. 65

13. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pg. 63

14. In some cases, however, Jesus is also moved to heal without being asked (Mk 1:21-28, Lk 7:11-17; 14:1-6 and Jhn 5: 1-9; 9:1-34; 11:17-44).

15. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624

16. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament Christology, pgs. 63-65. 

Scholar Brown notes that although Jesus’ miracles caused people to wonder and admire, this was only a secondary effect. When there is an attempt by others to make them primary, by urging Jesus to show off miracles, he is pictured as refusing (e.g. Mk 8:11-13; 15:31-32 and Matt 4:5-7; Matt 12:38-12). This is another aspect in which Jesus’ miracles differ from those of Apollonius in Philostratus’ The Life.

17. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622

18. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 622-623

19. Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pg. 309

20. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624

21. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg. 160

22. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pg. 187

23. The impressive reflection of the gospels to the Palestinian-Jewish milieu of the period of Jesus (as confirmed by history, archaeology and literature) is also a significant point in favor of the historicity of the Gospels in general. As stated by Latourelle, who provides a good summary of the work of renowned scholar Beda Rigaux (former president of SNTS, an international society of New Testament scholars): “The evangelical description [of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John] of the human environment (work, habitation, professions), of the linguistic and cultural environment (patterns of thought, Aramaic substratum), of the social, economic, political and juridical environment, of the religious environment especially (with its rivalries between Pharisees and Sadducees, its religious preoccupations concerning the clean and the unclean, the law and the Sabbath, demons and angels, the poor and the rich, the Kingdom of God and the end of time), the evangelical description of all this is remarkably faithful to the complex picture of Palestine at the time of Jesus” (Finding Jesus through the Gospels: History and Hermeneutics, pg. 227).

24. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 685, 698, 706 and 774.

Healing the paralyzed or crippled is attested to in Mark, Q, L and J;  healing the blind in Mark, Q and J;  lepers in Mark, Q and L and raising the dead in Mark, Q, L and J.

25. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 969-970.

It must be noted that other miracle stories may have fair indicators of historicity as Meier himself recognizes (for example, he even inclines towards the other two accounts of Jesus raising the dead in the gospels as going back to his ministry). However, the particular miracle stories mentioned pertaining to Jesus’ healings of the lame (Mark 2:1-12 and John 5:1-9),  the blind (Mark 10:46-52, Mark 8:22-26 and John 9) and raising the dead (Mark 5:21-43) are those that have sufficient indicators to make him come to a more firm positive conclusion that these likely go back to the historical Jesus. 

26. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 833

27. Keener, The Historical Jesus, pg. 170: “Most modern scholars, including even Bultmann, accept this response of Jesus as authentically reflecting the words of Jesus”.

28. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 685, 686, 698, 706,  832 and 837.

“…we saw good reason for accepting the core of the periscope (Matt 11:2-6 II Luke 7:18-23) as historical. There is no need to repeat the analysis of the pericope here. All that need be said is that when Jesus desired to sum up in a few words his miracle-working activity, “the lame walk” (choloi peripatousin) stood out in his mind as one of the five types of miracles that especially characterized his ministry of healing — which in turn symbolized and partially realized God’s coming rule and kingdom. The generalizing plural “the lame walk” correlates well with the prominence of four or five Gospel narratives dealing with paralyzed or crippled people. Whatever our judgement about this or that individual story, this type of miracle is firmly rooted in the earliest traditions of Jesus’ ministry” (pgs 685-686). 

“All in all, the tradition that Jesus healed the blind stands alongside the tradition that he worked exorcisms as one of the best attested miracle traditions in the Four Gospels” (pg. 698). 

“I think that Mark, Q, and L do allow us to state that during his ministry Jesus claimed to heal lepers and was thought by other people to have done so” (pg. 706). 

“The early church did not invent the picture of Jesus raising the dead out of thin air. The multiple attestation of sources and forms argues strongly that Jesus raised the dead — whatever we think of the truth of that claim — goes back to the public ministry and to Jesus himself. Apparently early Christians believed that Jesus raised the dead because his disciples believed it during his public ministry”  (pg. 832).

“Unless we wish to throw the criteria of historicity overboard in favor of a protean Jesus who always confirms to the religious predilections of every individual, the criteria impose on us the picture of a 1st-century Palestinian Jew who performed startling deeds that both he and at least some of his audience judged to be miraculous power. To Jesus’ mind these acts — including what he claimed to be acts of raising the dead — both proclaimed and actualized, however imperfectly, the kingdom of God … To excise these acts from the ministry of the historical Jesus is to excise a good deal of what he was all about” (pg 837).

29. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, pg. 345

30. Twelftree, The Face of New Testament Studies, pg. 206

31. Crossan (“Catholic” but practically atheist, does not believe Jesus rose from the dead and is very radical, more radical than many skeptical scholars even), Bultman (atheist), Grant (atheist), Vermes (non-religious Jew) and Paula Fredricksen (liberal Jew).

32. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, pg. 332

33. Bultman, Jesus, pg. 124.

Even Bultman could not deny this fact about Jesus during his time, when the scholarship was much more skeptical (operating under a lot more skeptical assumptions).

34. Grant, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pgs. 31 and 35

35. Vermes in his The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993). 

36. Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 114.

37. Twelftree, Jesus: The Miracle Worker, pg. 247

38. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 624

39. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 74-76.

However, when it comes to John in particular, Ehrman (an atheist scholar himself) holds to a dating of 90-95 AD.

40. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pg. 7

Disciples during the time of Jesus were typically in their teens. As scholar Keener note: “Like most disciples of other teachers, whether Jewish or gentile, most of Jesus’ disciples were probably in their teens, with a few possibly in their early twenties” (Christobiography). Assuming that a disciple was 20 years old when Jesus died as well as the standard dating of the gospels, the disciple would be 60-85 years old during the period the gospels were written (70-95 AD). Furthermore, while eyewitnesses were getting scarce during the writing of Matthew, Luke, and (especially) John, many people who heard them would have still been alive.

41. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 582-583.

In his work, Meier discusses Honi’s embellished account in the Mishna in more detail.

42. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 582.

Meier says that he could even “provide a few names from personal experience”.

43. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pgs. 587-588. 

44. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 581

45. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 625

46. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 578

47. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pg. 5: “Fifty years ago we were drilled in the critical orthodoxy of the form-critical school which insisted that the gospels were not to be seen as biographies, but since then there has been a massive swing in scholarly opinion on this point, and increasingly sophisticated study of the nature of biographical writing in the ancient world has led to a general recognition that, for all the distinctiveness of its Christian content and orientation, in terms of literary form Mark’s book (and those of Matthew, Luke and John) would have seemed to an educated reader in the first century to fall into roughly the same category as the lives of famous men pioneered by Cornelius Nepos and soon to reach their most famous expression in the ‘Parallel Lives’ of Plutarch”

48. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels (2019): “A clearly greater number of scholars, however, contend that even Damis is a fiction of either Philostratus or (as I think somewhat more likely) an earlier pseudepigrapher”.

49. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, pg. 256. 

50. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 580

51. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History and the Reliability of the Gospels: “A number of his accounts of Apollonius even resemble reports from Christian Gospels, though most frequently of the apocryphal variety … Given the relative dates, Christian stories would have been at least among the significant potential influences on his storytelling approach (offering literary fodder for miracle stories)”.

52. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World, pg. 257

53. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, pg. 580-581

54. Strictly speaking, these individuals are not saints but I wanted to give more modern examples. Solanus Casey is beatified, one step away from sainthood while Francis Houle’s case for canonization was opened in 2018.

For Solanus Casey, see this article by Patricia Treece.

For Francis Houle, see this article at the National Catholic Register.

In the future, I plan on tackling on my blog (among other topics, when it comes to the historical evidence for Christianity) Christian miraculous healings, as well as the mystical gifts and religious experiences of Christian saints. When these cases are examined in detail, they are compelling.

When it comes to healings in particular, we have many cases of healing in modern times. As a result, we have testimony and information on the illnesses these healed individuals suffered from (e.g. diagnosis by doctors and documentation), allowing us to rule out the possibility of the conditions being psychosomatic.

Anyone familiar with the Church’s modus operandi when it comes to miraculous claims knows that they adopt a very skeptical and cautious approach. When it comes to the Church’s investigations into miracles for canonization in particular, see the testimony of atheist scientist Jacalyn Duffin, who was asked to do a blind reading for a possible miracle for canonization and also, afterward, looked into the Vatican archives herself to see the Church’s documentation on the miraculous healings it approved for its canonization processes.

55. Korson,  G.  (2018). “Demons Don’t Sleep: Interview with a Demonologist”. Catholic Answers. Retrieved from: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/demons-dont-sleep-interview-with-a-demonologist

According to Adam Christian Blai (MA in psychology), a theological consultant in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh: “The Church generally defines three types of extraordinary demonic activity: demonic infestation, oppression/obsession, and possession. Infestation is when demons have the right to do extraordinary things in a place. Oppression and obsession are both translated from the Latin obsessio; it means a personal extraordinary attack on a person. Possession is when the demon has gained the rights to take over the body but not the soul”.

56. See, for example, the testimony of Jane Porter, who experienced a false healing through an Amazon pagan rite. Shortly afterward, her illness returned, and along with it, demonic activity in her life.

See also the testimonies of former occult practitioners Julie Frame and Lianne Douglas when it comes to the devil’s preternatural abilities manifesting in the occult. Julie and Lianne are now Christians.

Julie Frame: “As I started to become more interested and studying and learning more about that stuff I started having experiences which I thought [(emphasis)] were good experiences, I felt like I was in communication with angels and I felt like I was in communication with dead loved ones that were in Heaven and wanted to send a message to the people they loved and I began getting those messages. I actually started taking classes and I actually started doing mediumship for a short time and you know I would be in a session with someone and be sitting there and in my mind spiritually I would receive information which I felt like was coming from an angel or spirit guide and that kind information ranged from, you know, the name, the exact name, the date of birth, the age, I was receiving all the information about who they were, and then giving messages that I felt I was receiving and I did that for a little while uh I was shocked by the fact that I would sit down with this person and I would know everything about their dead loved one…”

Lianne Douglas (narrating an experience as she was getting closer to Christ): “One of the things that I did was I asked my spirit guides something because my spirit guides have been getting a lot more quiet in the past few weeks. They have been getting really quiet. And just the other day, I said to my spirit guides, “show me yourselves, in the name of Jesus Christ…show me yourselves”. And one of them just starts laughing…laughing, laughing, laughing…the other one showed me themselves as some kind of reptilian creature. I am shaking, shaking the minute talking about this because it’s like everything that I thought I knew … it’s like it’s crumbling away and I’m being slowly being delivered to the real truth. There are so many different new age practices that I’ve tried to learn and get involved in and I didn’t realize that they can take you away from [God]”.

As Christian Blai says: “Demons usually start with a con game. They may pretend to be a dead loved one, a holy angel, the spirit of a child in distress, or another spirit … Later, when the person is getting in too deep, the demons stop acting like a harmless servant and start dictating what the person can and cannot do … Demons never give what they promise, not really, and it’s all taken away once the person is in too deep to back out on their own”.

There are many more testimonies on Youtube by former new age practitioners who converted Christianity, detailing their experiences in the occult and warning others not to engage in it.

57. Ibrahim, A. (September, 8, 2015) Did Muhhamad Perform Miracles? First Things. Retrieved from: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/09/did-muhammad-perform-miracles

58. Other healings in the gospels pose further complications to the idea that Jesus healed through psychotherapy. The gospels record Jesus healing “at a distance” a number of times (Mk 7:24-30/Matt 15:21-28, Matt 8:5-13/Lk 7:1-10 and Jhn 4:46-54). These are cases wherein a person asks Jesus to heal someone they love or care about at home (in two of the three cases, the recipients of the healing were gravely ill), and then, upon returning to check on them, the petitioner finds the recipient healed.  These healings could not have been healed by Jesus through some sort of psychotherapy because he and the recipient did not interact (possibly, the recipient may not have even known that someone was asking for their healing).

59. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts: “…the Gospel reports bear little resemblance to psychotherapy (or modern medicine)”.

60. Meggit, The Historical Jesus and Healing, pg. 31.

Scholar Meggit continues, saying that the sole case of Jesus only being able to heal a few people is in his visit to Nazareth in Mark and Matthew, and that this one case is not what we would expect if he only failed psychosomatic illnesses: “The earliest records that we possess of Jesus’ healing ministry do not indicate that he gained his reputation by nly healing a small percentage of those that came to him. Yet, it is clear that if the success of Jesus was limited to those individuals presenting with symptoms that have a psychosomatic basis alone surely such a pattern should be discernible in the records. However, only in the tradition about Jesus’ healings in Nazareth do we get the indication that Jesus could only heal a few of those that came to him (Matt 13:58, Mark 6.5)”

Scholar Keener raises the same question in his discussion on the possibility of psychosomatic cures for Jesus’ healings: “…many have attributed Jesus’ healing miracles to psychic abilities or the ailments cured to psychosomatic causes … If Jesus merely discerned which illnesses were psychosomatic, his widespread reputation as an extraordinary healer becomes more difficult to explain. Among the categories of disorders that multiple attestation suggests that Jesus cured are blindness, skin disorders (“leprosy”), and occasionally death. Some summaries (e.g. in Q, Matt11:5//Luke 7:22), not to mention specific cases, suggest that Jesus healed multiple cases of blindness, deafness, leprosy, inability to walk and death. Would he have encountered so many psychosomatic cases, and primarily psychosomatic cases, of such dramatic ailments, in a one-to three-year ministry in Galilee? Some suggest that Jesus’s cures of blindness, paralysis, and the like reflect his cure of a particular psychiatic disorder; yet how many psychiartists regularly cure cases of these afflictions (especially publicly and immediately)? If Jesus meanwhile would have regularly failed with irreversible organic cases of blindness and leprosy, yet could not distinguish which cases were organic beforehand, would we not find more defensive explanations (like the one in Nazareth, Mark 6:5-6)? Some detractors of the psychic powers line of explanation also find it interesting that some observers are prepared to allow unproved psychic powers for humans that they reject as unacceptable violations of nature’s uniformity if assigned to God” (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts). 

According to Mark, the reason why Jesus could not heal in Nazareth, his hometown, was because of the lack of faith people had there. Specifically, the people could not believe that Jesus, whose family they knew and who lived in such proximity to them, was exhibiting such remarkable wisdom (in his preaching) and powers (in his miracles). This is why Jesus responds to the situation saying: “no prophet is without honor is his own hometown, his own people and his own home” — communicating his rejection at Nazareth, as well as the tendency of the prophets in the Old Testament to be rejected by those close to them as well. Jesus himself touches on this pattern again in Luke 4:23-27: “… And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum. Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.  I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.  Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.  And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian”. Psychologically, those who are more familiar with a person and have known them for a long time tend to see them as more human than those who only know their public face. So while Jesus was well-received in other places, it does make sense for him to have been met with doubt and disbelief at Nazareth.

61. Meggit, The Historical Jesus and Healing, pg. 31

62. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts

63. Strobel Interview with Dr. Gary Collins (Strobel, The Case for Christ, pg. 160). 

64. As prominent scholar Craig Keener comments in an interview: “[Y]ou offset multiple attestations for certain kinds of miracles, like the curing of blindness, the raising of the dead, and so on, and those are not the kinds of things that, raising from the dead certainly doesn’t work for psychosomatic explanations, the curing of blindness—maybe gradually, or something like that, but on multiple occasions, instantly, in public? … on the normal grounds we would use to reconstruct evidence from the first century, we have very good evidence for trusting that Jesus was known for these things, Jesus was experienced in this way, and unless you start with the premise that miracles can’t happen, I think miracles are the best explanation for this side of his public ministry”.

Retrieved from: https://apologetics315.com/2012/10/craig-keener-interview-on-miracles-transcript/

65. Henriksen and Sandnes, Jesus as Healer: A Gospel for the Body, pg. 249

66. Henriksen and Sandnes, Jesus as Healer: A Gospel for the Body, pg. 249

67. Chilton and Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, 11-12

The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection (Part 3 of 3)

The crucifixion of St. Peter under Nero (64 – 68 AD)

To return to part 2 of this series, click here.

III. Considering The Explanations

Having established the historicity of the four events: Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith, we can now proceed to examine the possible explanations for this set of facts — conspiracy, hallucination or resurrection.  

A.   Conspiracy

According to the conspiracy hypothesis, Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb and lied about their resurrection experiences. This view finds zero support in contemporary scholarship.[104] It also suffers from many problems.

1. It is highly unlikely that a resurrection conspiracy could have been conceived

The conspiracy hypothesis requires that the disciples fabricated a lie (the resurrection of Jesus) that was foreign within their Jewish worldview. How likely is it that the disciples would have invented the idea of a resurrection of a single individual within history and prior to the end of the world? It is much more likely that the disciples would have fabricated a lie that was familiar within their Jewish worldview (visions, spiritual assumption, or bodily assumption) because it was a conceivable occurrence to them and their fellow Jews. If they wanted to vindicate Jesus from his death and defeat, they would have resorted to any of the above mentioned possibilities. The fact that the disciples proclaimed resurrection, however, strongly indicates that they did witness something that sincerely convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead (i.e. an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances). 

With that said, in the points to follow below, I will assume that such a radical lie was able to be conceived on the end of the disciples.

2. A conspiracy being started and sustained by the disciples is highly implausible

A conspiracy being started and sustained by the disciples after the execution of Jesus is highly implausible as well. To see why this is so, let us consider three background facts.

One, Jesus’ execution by the Romans should have signaled the beginning of the end of his movement. It should have confirmed that he was not the Messiah, since the idea of a Messiah killed by pagans (the Romans) ran counter to Jewish Messianic expectations. As Wright notes:

[A] first-century Jew, faced with the crucifixion of a would-be messiah, or even of a prophet who had led a significant following, would not normally conclude that this person was the Messiah and that the kingdom had come. He or she would normally conclude that he was not and that it had not.[105]

In his book, “Jesus and the Victory of God” (1992), Wright discusses other Messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) and notes that all of them faded away after the death of their leaders. The fact that the Christian movement did not follow this otherwise unanimous trend is historically remarkable. As Wright notes, after the deaths of Judas the Galilean, Simon, Athronges, Eleazar ben Deinaus and Alexander, Menahem, Simon bar Giora and Simon bar-Kochba, their followers were either “rounded up” by Rome or “melted away into the undergrowth”.[106] 

Two, a conspiracy response by the disciples is highly unlikely because planning one would entail challenging those in power, that is, the Jewish leadership, who had just engineered the death of their leader, for a lie. By conspiring to proclaim a risen Christ, the disciples would be putting themselves in the center of danger and controversy, an action that would go against every human’s instinct for survival and self-preservation (especially after witnessing the arrest, suffering, and execution of their leader). 

Three, the disciples were earnest Jews who would not tell a lie of such immense gravity — that God had raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so. 

 From these three background facts, it is very difficult to see how a conspiracy could have “gotten off the ground” in the first place. If a conspiracy occurred, then it must have started with one person, who had the idea of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb and lying about Jesus appearing to them and proclaiming resurrection. How could this instigator bring himself to suggest something so outrageous to others? How could this person gather enough disciples to buy into this conspiracy plan given the three background facts discussed earlier? Furthermore, if this instigator opened up about his conspiracy plan to other disciples, who he planned to include in his conspiracy group, then it would only take one rejection to strike a great blow against his possible conspiracy — since there would be one disciple who would know about it and be willing to blow the whistle to others and the Sanhedrin should it actually happen. Several rejections, on the other hand, would certainly kill any ideas of conspiracy.  

Even assuming that a conspiracy was able to launch, it is still unlikely that it would have been sustained once persecution hit from the Jews. All it would have taken was one confession to deal a serious blow to the conspiracy, giving the Jewish leadership (1) evidence to bring before those deceived by the resurrection hoax and (2) increased morale to further crackdown on the movement and cause it to unravel. As Blaise Pascal (who was himself a devout Catholic) commented:

The apostles were either deceived or deceivers.  Either supposition is difficult, for it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead.  While Jesus was with them, he could sustain them; but afterwards, if he did not appear to them, who did make them act? The hypothesis that the Apostles were knaves is quite absurd.  Follow it out to the end, and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he has risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be.  The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.  Follow that out (Pensees, 322).

To illustrate how hard it is for a conspiracy to be maintained, one can look to the Watergate scandal. During this affair, U.S. President Nixon and his aides employed dirty tactics on the opposing political party to secure re-election and tried covering up the evidence. This conspiracy only lasted a few weeks under external pressure. As Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon during Watergate scandal, testifies:

I know how impossible it is for a group of people, even some of the most powerful in the world, to maintain a lie.  The Watergate cover-up lasted only a few weeks before the first conspirator broke and turned state’s evidence.[107]

Looking at history, the earliest Christians proclaimed a risen Jesus boldly — in the light of the three background facts discussed earlier, and soon after, in the face of hostile persecution. There is zero evidence that any Christian confessed that the resurrection was a lie. On the contrary, the evidence points towards firm and enduring faith, which is why it is recognized in scholarship that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. The fact that Paul was unable to quell the early Christian movement despite his best efforts (and later on, converted himself) is a testament to the disciples’ deep convictions and credibility.

Ultimately, all these strongly argue against the Christian movement being a conspiracy and points to other hypotheses that stem from genuine belief on the end of Jesus’ disciples (hallucination or resurrection).

3. The disciples would not have disrespected Jesus’ body

Another reason why a conspiracy is unlikely is that it would have entailed the disciples to disrespect Jesus’ body. Transferring Jesus’ body from a tomb to a ditch, the location of which would have to remain undiscovered and be forgotten, would be extremely disrespectful. This is what the disciples would have to do, however, if they were planning to maintain their resurrection hoax. The love and respect that the disciples had for Jesus would firmly argue against them doing this.

4. The disciples were earnest Jews

 Four, if the disciples proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead when He did not do so, then we would have to say that they were insincere, non-God fearing Jews. However, the fact that they followed Jesus because they thought he was the Messiah indicates that they were earnest Jews. Furthermore, as shown by the New Testament texts, the disciples preached the primacy of love, upholding the 10 commandments and cultivating virtue, and avoiding sin.

Historical evidence also indicates that they strove to live as they preached. The apostolic and early Church fathers referred to the moral character of the disciples favorably, with Clement calling Peter and Paul “righteous pillars” and Polycarp saying that the apostles “ran…with faith and righteousness” and that “they did not love the present world, but Him who died for us”.[108] James, the brother of Jesus, was so renowned for his moral character that he was given the title “the Just”.[109]  The New Testament epistles also show that the first generation Christians used a “race” as a metaphor for the Christian life  – signifying the difficulty and perseverance it entailed (Heb 12:1, 1 Cor 9:25-27, Gal 5:7, Phil 2:16 and 2 Tim 4:7). In doing so, they compared themselves to athletes, again, referring to the discipline and perseverance they would have to imbibe as a practicing Christian. These athletic metaphors would be taken up by other apostolic and early Church fathers in their writings.

In the end, the historical evidence points firmly to the conclusion that the disciples were earnest and conscientious Jews. They would not have been capable of carrying out and maintaining a “resurrection conspiracy” that would be such an affront to God.  

5. The sincere belief of the disciples strongly argues against a conspiracy

As mentioned earlier in part one of this series, the evidence for the disciple’s sincere belief in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances is powerful. For this reason, there is a virtual consensus in scholarship that the disciples had experiences that caused them to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them.

The disciples traveled great distances preaching a risen Jesus, endured hardship and persecution, and in some cases, suffered martyrdom. This is strong evidence for genuine belief, not a conspiracy. As scholar E.P. Sanders comments on the possibility of fraud:

I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause.[110]

6. A conspiracy would have resulted in more appealing narratives

If the disciples conspired in proclaiming the resurrection, why did they not do a better job in fabricating the empty tomb and resurrection narratives? Why is Mark’s account of the empty tomb so restrained? Why, for example, was the resurrection not witnessed in the account of the empty tomb? Why is Jesus’ resurrected body not described? Furthermore, why do the narratives contain embarrassing elements? Why were the events at the tomb witnessed solely by women? Why is the honor of witnessing Jesus’ first post-mortem appearance given to Mary Magdalene and the other women, as opposed to the male disciples (especially Peter, the leader of the early Church0? If the disciples lied about the resurrection, it is likely that they would have fabricated a more impressive and appealing account. 

7. A conspiracy would not explain the conversions of James and Paul

The conspiracy theory also suffers from other problems. A conspiracy would not explain the conversion of James the Just from skeptic to believer in Jesus. It would also not explain the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and a fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.

B.   Hallucination

According to the hallucination hypothesis, the resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations on the end of the disciples. This theory enjoys the most support among skeptical scholars today. Like the conspiracy theory, however, it also suffers from many problems.

1. The hallucination theory does not explain the empty tomb

One, the hallucination theory does not account for the empty tomb.  To account for the empty tomb under this hypothesis, we would have to assume that an individual stole the body of Jesus for some reason.

If it were a follower of Jesus or someone who held him in high regard, it is difficult to see why he or she would have carried out such an action that was disrespectful to Jesus – taking his body out of its resting place where it could be visited by those who knew him, and transferring it somewhere else. Such an action would also be odd because if this person held Jesus in high regard, he or she could simply visit his tomb like everyone else.

On the other hand, if the person who stole Jesus’ body was not a follower of his or did not hold Jesus in high regard, then it is puzzling as to why he was so interested in robbing his corpse in the first place. Corpses had no value. A grave robber would have been interested in valuable goods interred with a corpse but not the corpse itself.

Grave robbery also faces some difficulty as a possibility because it was considered a serious crime in Greco-Roman antiquity (in antiquity, tombs were held in high regard). In fact, the crime warranted the death penalty[111] This would have served as a deterrent to anyone considering robbing a grave.

2. It requires us to posit a fantastic series of hallucinations

A weakness of the hallucination theory is that it requires us to posit a fantastic series of events wherein multiple hallucinations occurred to Jesus’ disciples, as individuals and in groups, and that these hallucinations convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. The group appearances, in particular, are especially difficult to account for because hallucinations are private and subjective experiences — no two people can see the exact same hallucination. As clinical psychologist Garry Collins explains:

Hallucinations are individual occurrences.  By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time.  They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group of people … Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.[112] 

Another clinical psychologist who has studied the possibility of group hallucinations extensively, Garry Sibcy, states:

I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.[113]

In response to this, skeptical scholars put forward the explanation that although the disciples did not share the exact hallucination of Jesus as a collective, they did experience individual hallucinations of him in group settings (see Ludemann, Goulder, and Vermes as examples).[114] The likeliness of such a fantastic series of events happening, however, is extremely low.

3. The appearance traditions in the gospels pose more difficulties for proponents of the hallucination theory

The appearance traditions in the gospels pose more difficulties for proponents of the hallucination theory. 

One, according to the gospels, the appearances witnessed by the disciples were both visual and auditory. This would make great sense since the appearances genuinely convinced the disciples that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. It is difficult to imagine how visual but non-auditory or auditory but non-visual appearances of Jesus would have convinced the disciples that He had risen, and that what they saw before them was an actual living encounter (“in the flesh”). If one of these elements were missing, these appearances would seem more like hallucinations or visions.  However, if the appearances of Jesus were visual and auditory, then we would have to raise the already high improbability of the posited series of hallucinations even more. Hallucinations usually occur in a single mode (e.g. visual, auditory, olfactory, etc). As medical experts Laroi and Aleman note in their book “Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception” (published by the American Psychological Association), multimodal hallucinations are rarer.[115]

Two, in the gospel appearance traditions, Jesus would have lengthy conversations with his disciples, something that would be improbable for a hallucination to do (considering that the hallucinations of the disciples, James and Paul were likely not rooted in mental illnesses).

Three, the gospel accounts clearly portray Jesus’ appearances as physical and bodily. In these accounts, Jesus offers his disciples to touch his risen body and eats a broiled fish in their presence (Lk 24:36-43), some of the disciples grab hold of his feet in worship (Matt 28:9-10) and the disciple Thomas touches the wounds of Jesus (Jn 20:24-29). In addition to being visual and auditory, the appearances of Jesus in the gospels are tangible, and Jesus lets his disciples know it: Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Lk 24:39). These accounts accord well with Acts 1:1-3, which states that after Jesus’ death, he appeared to his disciples and provided “many convincing proofs that he was alive”. The problem with these previous two points, capable of lengthy conversations and displaying clear physicality, is that they are difficult or impossible to account for through hallucinations.

Four, in the gospels, the appearances of Jesus were diverse. They happened to men and women of different ages, to individuals of different personalities and states of mind, at different times of the day, and occurred indoors and outdoors. However, even if we were to put aside the gospel accounts, a variety of individuals and (presumably) circumstances are already attested to in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition. As a result, this issue has to be factored in. Ultimately, the variety in individuals and circumstances increases the unlikelihood of our posited series of hallucinations even more.

4. It is highly unlikely that hallucinations of Jesus would have produced resurrection belief

It is highly unlikely that hallucinations of Jesus, even with an empty tomb, would have produced resurrection belief. The idea of Jesus’ resurrection was a completely foreign concept within Jewish thought. As mentioned earlier, if the disciples discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty and experienced hallucinations of him, they would have concluded that Jesus was bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them. The concept of a resurrection to an isolated individual within history and prior to the end of the world simply did not exist within Judaism. As a result, it is unlikely that the disciples would have conceived of and settled on resurrection as an interpretation.

With that said, in the discussion below, I will assume that Jesus’ resurrection, despite being a foreign concept within Judaism, could have come to mind to the disciples and therefore, could have potentially become established as an interpretation of what they had seen and experienced.

5. Skepticism and discernment would greatly diminish the possibility of hallucinations being interpreted as resurrection

If the disciples approached the extraordinary appearances of Jesus before their eyes with skepticism and discernment (assessing what they were seeing critically, attempting to converse with the appearance at length to determine its nature or meaning, or if the idea of resurrection came to mind, deciding to touch the appearance) then the chances of them attributing hallucinations as resurrection decreases greatly. 

With that said, there are three reasons why the disciples approached their resurrection experiences with skepticism and discernment.

One, doubt, skepticism, and curiosity are all part of the human condition. We have always had it as a species. On the issue of doubt and skepticism, in particular, there are multiple passages in the Old and New Testament that show this. Focusing on the New Testament alone, doubt and disbelief are found during Jesus’ ministry (Mk 5:35-42; 9:24-25, Matt 13:54-57; 14:22-31, Jn 6:32-68; 7:5) during the empty tomb and resurrection accounts (Lk 24:9-11, Lk 24:40-43, Jn 20:24-28, Matt 28:16-17) and during the post-Easter missionary efforts regarding the resurrection and others (Gal 1:18-20, 1 Cor 1:22-23, Acts 17:31-32). The above verses show that doubt and skepticism have always been with us and that even ancient people knew the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary (and were skeptical and discerning of the latter). If the disciples witnessed an appearance of a seemingly alive Jesus before their eyes, it is highly likely that they would have tried to understand the nature and meaning of the appearance through their rational faculties (discernment), and at least some of them would have been doing so in disbelief of what was happening (skepticism). Furthermore, if the radical idea of Jesus’ resurrection came to their minds, it is also possible, especially for those skeptical about what they were seeing, that they would have used their hands to investigate the appearance of Jesus before them — reaching out to touch it.

Two, as just stated, the gospels themselves attest that there was skepticism on the end of Jesus’ disciples regarding the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances.

Three, the fact that Jesus’ earliest disciples unanimously proclaimed resurrection strongly implies discernment. The fact that the early Church proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead, despite such an interpretation being a foreign concept within Judaism, and over other known possible interpretations that coheres with an empty tomb (e.g. hallucinations and visions of a bodily assumed Jesus), indicates that they had very good reasons for specifically proclaiming resurrection.

For all of the above reasons, it is highly likely that the disciples viewed their resurrection experiences with skepticism and discernment. The fact that resurrection was the explanation they unanimously settled on, passing their skepticism and discernment, points towards the conclusion that they truly did encounter the risen Jesus.  

6. It is very difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances could have arisen

It is very difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances arose among Jesus’ disciples. 

First, let us consider the possibility of a group hallucination occurring. If one of the disciples started having a hallucination of Jesus and told others near him about what he was seeing, do you think that the other disciples would have begun to see a hallucination of Jesus as well? Of course not! In all likelihood, the other disciples would have seen nothing, and the first disciple would have been alone in his hallucination.[116]

Second, let us grant that a group of disciples, somehow, managed to experience multiple hallucinations of Jesus as a collective. If this happened, how could the individuals in the group not realize the discrepancies in what they were seeing and what others were seeing? If you considered or believed that you were witnessing an extraordinary event as a group, you would be aware of how the other people in the group reacted and responded to what you were seeing because you would view yourselves as collective witnesses. This would especially be the case when it comes to a possibly supernatural appearance from Jesus. If the disciples noticed discrepancies between what they were seeing and what others were seeing, they would not have settled on resurrection as an interpretation of what they witnessed, since resurrection appearances entail an appearance that is veridical and “seen the same” by witnesses. If the disciples realized that their discrepancies between what they witnessed and what others witnessed, they likely would have settled on hallucinations or visions as the interpretation of what they witnessed.

There are many ways through which the disciples could have realized that there was a discrepancy between what they were seeing and what others were seeing during a “collective hallucination”.  

One, if the hallucinations of Jesus these individuals were seeing were not located in the same spot in the room or vicinity, or if the hallucination of Jesus moved and those who saw a moving hallucination reacted accordingly, then this would have provided a good opportunity for individuals in the group to realize that they were not seeing the same thing (as they saw the actions of others and compared it to what they were seeing). 

Two, if Jesus spoke to some people but not to others in these individual hallucinations, and those who Jesus spoke to responded back, then this would have been another good opportunity for those in the group to notice the obvious discrepancies in what people were witnessing. Those whom Jesus did not speak to could see that the group was not witnessing the same thing, since Jesus said nothing to them but something to others. On the other hand, those whom Jesus did speak to could see the obvious disconnect in their responses, since individual hallucinations of Jesus would not have said the same thing to each person.

Three, if a group of disciples experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus, it is highly likely that these hallucinations would not have ended at the same time. If one person in the group’s hallucination ended early and he saw others around him still seeing Jesus, he would realize that they never saw the same thing as a group in the first place. Others in the group whose hallucinations would end earlier before the rest would also follow in this realization.

Four, if the group of disciples asked each other afterward if they really saw the same thing and assess their experiences together, then this would have been another good opportunity for them to realize the discrepancies in what they witnessed — and it is highly likely that they did do this. Discussing, comparing, and assessing experiences with each other after collectively witnessing something extraordinary is natural and expected (especially after witnessing a possibly supernatural appearance of Jesus). If the disciples did this, however, then it is unlikely that they would have proclaimed resurrection since they would realize through discussion that they did not witness the same thing. There would know that there were discrepancies in the appearance of Jesus, what he did, what he said, etc). This would prove to them that the appearance they witnessed was not a resurrection but something else.

Ultimately, if individuals in the group realized that there were discrepancies in what they saw and what others were seeing, then they would not have proclaimed resurrection — since a resurrection appearance would have to be physical and bodily, objective, and “real in the world”. They would have instead, proclaimed something else such as visions of a bodily assumed Jesus.

For all of the above reasons, it is very difficult to see how belief in group resurrection appearances could have emerged from hallucinations among the disciples. This strongly argues against hallucinations being the catalyst behind the early Christian resurrection proclamation.

7. It would not easily explain the conversion of James

The appearance and conversion of James adds further difficulty to the hallucination hypothesis.

First, we would have to add James to the posited series of hallucinations among the disciples, increasing the already high improbability of this scenario. The unlikelihood of a hallucination of Jesus occurring to James is enhanced by the fact that James did not believe in Jesus, and was not involved in his ministry. In fact, after the crucifixion, James must have felt even more assured in his belief that Jesus was not the Messiah, and that his death was, unfortunately, “his own making”.

Second, since James was skeptical of Jesus during his ministry, he would have viewed the appearance of Jesus before him with an especially critical eye. Furthermore, if he heard stories from family members or Jesus’ disciples that Jesus rose from the dead and that he was appearing among them, it is very likely (given his skepticism) that he would have made sure that what he was seeing before him was truly his risen cousin — likely by touching the appearance.

8. It would not explain the conversion of Paul

A hallucination would not easily explain the conversion of Paul, a Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early Church, to Christianity as well.

First, we would have to add Paul to the posited series of hallucinations among the disciples and James, increasing the already high improbability of this scenario. A hallucination of Jesus occurring to Paul is also unlikely for two reasons. One, Paul was not a follower or relative of Jesus, so he was lacking in a fraternal or familial connection that would have made a hallucination more probable. Two, as noted by scholar Krister Stendahl, Paul was “a very happy and successful Jew…He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings…”. As a result, it is difficult to see what could have caused Paul to hallucinate.[117] Paul was a respected figure in Jewish circles. He strongly persecuted Christianity because he saw the group as a heresy and an affront to God whom he loved. Given Paul’s situation, it is difficult to imagine what could have triggered a hallucination for him in the first place. Not only was he successful, he was convinced that he was doing the right thing in persecuting the early Church.

Second, as an educated man, devout Jew, and strong enemy of the early Church, Paul would have viewed the appearance of Jesus before him with even greater skepticism than James. His sharp intellect would also have helped him discern if his experience was a product of the mind or an authentic encounter with a risen Jesus. In the end, the fact that the appearance Paul witnessed sincerely convinced him that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to him is historically impressive.

C. Resurrection

According to the resurrection hypothesis, Jesus rose from the dead, as the earliest Christians proclaimed.

This theory enjoys a preponderance of evidence in its favor. The sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith all point to the conclusion that Jesus rose.

The resurrection hypothesis also fits in with the evidence seamlessly. It faces no problems or difficulties unlike the conspiracy and hallucination hypotheses. In the end, the resurrection hypothesis…

  • Explains the post mortem appearances and empty tomb with zero difficulties.
  • Best explains the sincere belief of the disciples in Jesus’ resurrection — why they traveled great distances preaching a risen Christ, and why they endured hardship, persecution, and in some cases, suffered martyrdom, for this belief of theirs. (Hallucinations typically do not bring about such confidence, zeal and inspiration!).
  • Explains why the disciples settled on resurrection as an interpretation of what they witnessed despite resurrection being a foreign concept within Judaism and the existence of non-foreign explanations that cohered with an empty tomb (visions of a bodily assumed Jesus).
  • Coheres with the earnest Jewish faith of the disciples.
  • Coheres perfectly with the appearance accounts in the gospels and Acts.
  • Best explains the conversion of James from skeptic to believer in Jesus.
  • Best explains the conversion of Paul, a respected Pharisee and fierce enemy of the early Church to Christianity.

The resurrection hypothesis, enjoying a preponderance of evidence in its favor and possessing zero problems or difficulties is undoubtedly, the “best explanation for the evidence”.  The hypothesis only requires two presuppositions, (1) that God exists and that (2) He revealed Himself to the Jewish people.  The former presupposition is supported by impressive evidence from natural theology, while the latter is supported by the Jewish conception of God (which is consistent with the findings of natural theology) and the striking history of its people.[118]

In the end, by raising Jesus from the dead, God confirms Jesus, his ministry and his claims about his identity like a “divine stamp of approval” — that He is indeed, His Son in the flesh.


104. Today, however, this explanation [the conspiracy hypothesis] has been completely given up by modern scholarship”.  (Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg. 371)

105. Wright, Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem. Retrieved from: http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/christian-origins-and-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-resurrection-of-jesus-as-a-historical-problem/

106. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pg.  110

107. Colson, How Now Shall We Live?, pgs.  275-276.

108. First Clement 5:2-7 and Polycarp, To the Philippians 9:2

109. Eusebius quoting Clement, Ecclesiastical History, 2.9.1-3

110. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus

111. The Nazareth Inscription (dated around 20 BC) attests to how tombs were held in high regard in the ancient world, and how grave robbery accorded one significant punishment:

Edict from an unnamed Caesar: “It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household members—that these remain undisturbed forever.  But if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat with honor those who have been entombed.  You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker”.

As scholar Metzger notes: “In any case, the inscription contributes yet another testimony to what we knew already concerning the sanctity with which tombs were generally regarded in antiquity and the variety of penalties against violatia sepulchri.” (The Nazareth Inscription Once Again” in New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, pg. 91)

112. Habermas, Hallucination Theories to Explain Jesus’ Resurrection, par. 48. Retrieved from: https://www.bethinking.org/did-jesus-rise-from-the-dead/hallucination-theories-to-explain-jesus-resurrection

113. Habermas attained this testimony through personal correspondence with Sibcy at the request of Licona, who was doing research on hallucinations (The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, pg.  484).  

114. Ludemann, in his work “The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry”, explains the group appearances by saying that they were “shared hallucinatory fantasies” (pgs. 166, 175 and 176) and in the case of the appearance to the 500, that it was a “mass ecstasy” (pg. 108).

Licona summarizes Goulder’s view in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach before responding to it. According to Licona, Goulder explains the group appearances as “communal delusions” (pg. 482).

Licona also summarizes Vermes’ view stating that he explains the individual and group appearances as “visions” and “apparitions” (pg. 477).

115. Licona, using Aleman and Laroi’s “Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception” as his source says that hallucinations can be experienced in a number of modes such as auditory, visual, olfactory, kinesthetic, etc — but that they are generally experienced in a single mode.  Multimodal or compound hallucinations are more rare.

116. Scholar Michael Licona, in a web article entitled “Are the New Testament Gospels historically reliable accounts of Jesus?”, relates the experiences his friends at the U.S.  Navy who experienced hallucinations during one of their toughest training weeks before being initiated as a SEAL. They called this week, “Hell Week”. The experiences of Licona’s friends at the US Navy show that hallucinations are not “contagious”.  If an individual experienced a hallucination and told others about it, he would in all likelihood be alone in it — his friends would not see anything. Quoting Licona narrating the experiences of his friends:

“Years ago, I lived in Virginia Beach.  Since half of the Navy SEALS are stationed in that area, I had the privilege of meeting many of them and even befriended several.  SEALS are some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Their physical abilities and mental toughness are truly enviable and go beyond what I would have thought to be humanly possible.

There are several steps candidates must successfully complete prior to becoming a SEAL.  One of the first steps is to complete “Hell Week.” This week begins on a Sunday evening and end Saturday morning.  During that week, candidates are subjected to conditions that test their physical and mental toughness to their outermost edges.  Most do not make it through the week and drop out. Candidates get only about 3–5 hours of sleep during the entire week — not every night but the entire week.  Due to the sleep deprivation, a significant number of the candidates experience hallucinations during the week. Many told me they had experienced a hallucination during an exercise called “Around the World” in which small teams in rafts row to a buoy in the ocean, then return.  The team finishing first gets to sit out the next race and rest.

One SEAL told me he thought he saw an octopus come to the surface and wave at him.  Another told me he thought he saw a train coming toward them. When he warned the others of the approaching train, they told him there are no trains running on the Pacific Ocean! But they were unable to convince him.  So, he rolled out of the raft to avoid being hit by the train. Another SEAL told me about a guy who was in his raft who began swatting his paddle at something in the air. When asked what he was doing, he answered he was trying to hit the dolphins that were jumping over their raft! What’s of interest is that no one else saw the octopus or the train or the dolphins.  They were all in the same frame of mind. And many of them were experiencing hallucinations. Yet, pointing out what one was seeing did not lead others to see the same things. That’s because hallucinations are private experiences in the mind of an individual. They are neither contagious nor collective. And some people are not prone to hallucinate”.

Retrieved from:  https://thebestschools.org/special/ehrman-licona-dialogue-reliability-new-testament/licona-major-statement/

117. Stendahl, Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles, pgs.  12-13

118. Clarifying three points below (natural theology, the Jewish conception of God as consistent with the findings of natural theology and the striking history of the Jewish people):

Natural theology is the study of God apart from divine revelation (i.e. what can we know about God through reason alone). It encompasses philosophy and science. See the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology and Feser’s 5 Proofs of the Existence of God as examples of work in this field.

Philosophical arguments point to the existence of an uncaused first cause (that is, God) with the following attributes: immutability, immateriality, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness or invisibility, perfect goodness and necessary existence (Flew, There is A God, pg. 92).

When it comes to the striking history of the Jews, I am referring to their long-held belief that God revealed Himself to them and made them His chosen people, the Old Testament texts, their long line of prophets from Abraham to Malachi, and of course, the person of Jesus himself.

The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection (Part 2 of 3)

To return to part 1 of this series, click here.

C.   The empty tomb

The third event to be examined in our historical examination is the empty tomb. That Jesus’ tomb was found empty shortly after his death is recognized by the majority of scholars.[55] There are eight arguments supporting this event’s historicity.

1. Multiple Attestation

The first argument is that Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in multiple independent sources. 

First, the empty tomb is implied in Paul’s letters.[56] If you recall, Paul conveys a primitive tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 and in verse 4 Jesus’ empty tomb is implied: “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”.  When the above tradition states that Jesus “was buried” and that he “was raised”, it implies an empty tomb (or grave, which coheres perfectly with an empty tomb).  There are four arguments supporting this position. One, as scholar Wright noted, the mention here of “buried then raised” no more needs to be amplified than one would need to amplify the statement “I walked down the street” with the qualification “on my feet”.[57] The words “buried” and “raised” stand in deliberate juxtaposition, with the latter undoing the former. Two, the expression “on the third day” implies an empty tomb.  As Craig notes: 

Since no one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead, why did the early disciples proclaim that he had been raised ‘on the third day’? Why not on the seventh day? The most likely answer is that it was on the third day that the women discovered the tomb of Jesus empty; and so naturally, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day.[58] 

Three, the disciples and Paul certainly believed that Jesus’ grave was empty, since Jewish belief in the resurrection was physical and bodily.  As scholar Earle Ellis comments

It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave-emptying’ resurrection.  To them an anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a ‘square circle’.[59] 

Four, there is a remarkable correspondence between the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, the gospel narratives (as represented by Mark, which is held to be the earliest gospel) and the sermon in Acts 13:28-31.  As seen in the chart below, the four elements of “died”, “buried”, “raised” and “appeared” are all present, with the second line of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition corresponding to Jesus’ burial in a tomb.

This impressive correspondence of independent traditions is compelling evidence that the burial mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition refers to the event in the gospels and Acts that is Jesus’ burial in a tomb. 

In addition to Paul’s letters, the empty tomb is also attested in Mark’s early passion source.  It is widely held among scholars that Mark drew upon an earlier source in composing his passion narrative.[60] The primary reason for this belief is that Mark’s Gospel, which is held to be the earliest written (around 70 AD), consists of short anecdotal stories about Jesus strung like “pearls on a string” but when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we get a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread until the empty tomb.[61]  According to prominent scholar James Dunn: 

The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels.  This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them.[62] 

When it comes to the earliness of Mark’s passion source, scholars date it within 30 AD to 60 AD (though it is held by many that this source is to be dated no later than the 40s).[63] In addition to the earliness of this source, there are also strong indicators that it originated in Jerusalem due to its familiarity with its topography and its surrounding areas, the naming of individuals who were a part of the Jerusalem church, the semitisms (traces of Aramaic) and its knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.[64]

Although a reconstruction of Mark’s early passion source cannot be accomplished with certainty, it is highly likely that the account of the discovery of the empty tomb was a part of it.  There are a number of reasons behind this position. One, it is hard to believe that the early passion source would end with Jesus’ death and defeat with no mention of the empty tomb or resurrection.  As scholar Wilckens rightly noted the passion story would be incomplete without victory in the end.[65] Furthermore, the disciples proclaimed the resurrection shortly after Jesus’ death in 30 AD.  Whatever historical occurrences caused the early Christians to proclaim a risen Christ, be it the empty tomb, resurrection experiences, or both, must have been mentioned in the early passion source to at least some degree — because whatever they were, they were already “being told”.  Two, if the empty tomb narrative was included in the passion source, then there would be a correspondence between the primitive Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Mark 15:37-16:7 — Jesus died, was buried, rose and appeared — all of these elements would be present in both accounts (including Jesus’ appearance, which is mentioned as a future event in Mark 16:7).  Given that the 1 Corinthians 15 creed is foundational, it would make great sense for the four-element formula of died, buried, rose and appeared to be present in the early passion source as well. Three, Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb is simple and unadorned. It is not colored by apologetical or theological developments that one would expect from a later legend.  As atheist scholar Rudolf Bultmann noted: 

Mark’s presentation is extremely reserved, in so far as the resurrection and the appearance of the risen Lord are not recounted.[66]

Nauck, another scholar, also observes that many theological motifs that might be expected are lacking in the story. According to Nauck, the only theological motif that is present in the narrative is “the crucified is risen”.[67] These suggest that the empty tomb narrative is not a later legend but an old tradition. For all of the above reasons, it is highly probable that the empty tomb narrative was a part of Mark’s early passion source.  It must also be noted that even if the passion source ended prior to the empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb would still be attested to by Mark.  

In addition to Mark, the empty tomb is also attested to in the other remaining gospels — Matthew, Luke and John.  Although Matthew and Luke are said to have used Mark as one of their sources in composing their gospels, their gospels also contain independent traditions that presuppose the empty tomb (Matt 27:62-66; 28:11-15 and Luke 24:13-15).[68]  John on the other hand, is generally held to be separate from the synoptic gospels (i.e.  Mark, Matthew and Luke), so his attestation to the empty tomb is independent. However, John also contains an independent tradition that presupposes the empty tomb (John 20:1-10; 11-18).  

Lastly, the empty tomb is also attested to in Acts in the form of recounted apostolic sermons. Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in Acts 13:28-31 and its emptiness after the resurrection is also implied (“they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…”). The empty tomb is also implied in Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37.[69]  

In the end, the empty tomb of Jesus strongly satisfies the criterion of multiple attestation. Historians see two independent attestations as good evidence for an event’s historicity. However, when it comes to the empty tomb, we have a surplus of independent attestations beyond this number.

2. Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea is highly probable

The second argument is that there is strong evidence that Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is historical. There are seven arguments supporting this event’s historicity.  

One, Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is multiply attested.  The event is mentioned in all 4 gospels, that is at least attestation in two independent sources Mark (early passion source) and John.[70] In addition to the gospels, Jesus’ entombment is also attested to in Acts 13:28-31.

Two, if the burial story were invented, it would be odd for a Christian fabricator to invent a fictional character and give him a name (Joseph), a place of birth in Judea (Arimathea), and claim that he was a member of a high profile group like the Sanhedrin (which was the Jewish leadership). This oddity is further enhanced if the fabricator was Mark because providing names is not standard fare in his gospel — so providing Joseph’s name was something that could easily have been avoided.  However, Mark does provide a name.  This suggests that Joseph of Arimathea belongs to historical memory like other names in Mark (e.g.  John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Judas, James the brother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Herod Antipas and Pilate). In the end, by providing a name and Judean place of birth to Joseph’s character, and placing him in the Jewish Sanhedrin, the hypothetical Christian fabricator makes his burial narrative much easier to falsify, and on the positive end, confirm.  When it comes to the idea of falsifying an invented burial narrative, this would especially be of interest to Jewish leaders and critics of Christianity, who had every motive to disprove any fabricated Christian claims and tarnish the reputation of the early Church. Knowing fully well what happened to Jesus some time ago as engineers of his execution, and as a major event in their past, they would have been fully equipped to shoot down a fabricated narrative. 

Three, it is highly unlikely that a Christian fabricator would invent a member of the Sanhedrin, portray him as doing a kindness to Jesus, and give him the honor of burying Jesus.  The early Church placed the blame on the Jewish leadership for maliciously engineering the death of their leader, and this can be seen in the passion narratives.  As a result, any Christian invention would likely not end up giving credit to the Sanhedrin. As noted by critical scholar Raymond Brown: 

That the burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable, since a Christian fictional creation from nothing of a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right is almost inexplicable, granted the hostility in early Christian writings toward the Jewish authorities responsible for the death of Jesus…While high probability is not certitude, there is nothing in the basic pre-Gospel account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph that could not be plausibly be deemed historical.[71]

Four, the naming of Joseph of Arimathea strongly suggests that Jesus’ burial place was well-known.  As scholar Catchpole comments:

It is extremely difficult to believe that the recollection of his (Joseph’s) name would persist in connection with something he had done, while at the same time the location where he had done it remained unknown.  It is easier to associate a known agent of burial with a known place of burial, and therefore to be open to the possibility that there was indeed a specific tomb available for visiting shortly after Jesus’ death.[72]

Five, Mark’s burial narrative is simple and unadorned.  It can be described as told “matter of factly”. As scholar Bornkamm comments: “The report of Jesus’ funeral is concise, unemotional and without any bias”.[73] This argues against the account being a later legend. 

Six, the burial account in the gospels accords well with archaeological and historical evidence regarding 1st century Jewish burial practices.  As noted by Jew and renowned archaeologist, Jodi Magness, who is particularly an expert on 1st century Jewish burial practices (Magness herself affirms the historicity of Jesus’ entombment by Joseph):

[T]he Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial accord well with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.  The source(s) of these accounts were familiar with the manner in which wealthy Jews [like Joseph of Arimathea] living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus disposed of their dead.[74]

Seven, there are no competing burial traditions.  If the burial narrative in the gospels were a later legend, we should expect other accounts or attestations of how Jesus was actually buried.  However, all of our sources affirm that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

In the light of the strong evidence for Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, liberal scholar John A.T.  Robinson concludes that Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”[75]

3. Mark’s account is simple

The third argument is that as mentioned earlier, Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development. Since legends are created out of nothing, they tend to be optimized for convenience and richly developed. This however, is not the case in Mark’s account. In it, the resurrection is not witnessed or described, there is no description of the risen Jesus, no reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, no use of Christological titles, etc. Some critics might stumble at the presence of an angel but as Craig notes, there is no reason to think that the tradition ever lacked an angel.[76] Furthermore, as Craig also notes, the angel may be chosen to be excised, to appease those with skeptical palettes, as a purely literary figure which provides the interpretation of an empty tomb.  Anyway, in order to appreciate how restrained Mark’s account is, one has only to read the Gospel of Peter, which describes Jesus’ triumphant exit from the tomb, supported by angels, followed by a talking cross, and witnessed by guards and the Jewish leadership.[77] Another forgery would be The Ascension of Isaiah 3:16, in which Jesus emerges out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel.  These are what real legends look like. The simplicity of Mark’s account is further evidence that the empty tomb account is not a later legend, but an old tradition.   

4. “On the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition

The fourth argument is that the phrase “on the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition.  According to Mark, the empty tomb was discovered by women “on the first day of the week”. On the other hand, the primitive 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, dates Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day”.  As scholar E.L. Bode notes, if the empty tomb story were a late legend, it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the accepted and widely spread third-day motif.[78] The fact that Mark uses “on the first day of the week” indicates that this tradition is very old. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question  As Craig explains:

[A]lthough ‘the first day of the week’ is very awkward in the Greek (te mia ton sabbaton), employing a cardinal instead of an ordinal number and ‘Sabbath’ for ‘week’, the phrase when translated back into Aramaic is perfectly natural.[79]

This impressive semitism, linked to the day in the week of the discovery of the empty tomb, is evidence that the empty tomb tradition is not a late-developing legend but an old tradition that originated in a Palestinian setting. 

The semitism “on the first day of the week” also strengthens the position that the empty tomb is implied in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition when it says that Jesus rose “on the third day”.  This is because the third day after Jesus’ death, which took place on a Friday, was the “first day of the week” — Sunday. They are both referring to the same date. The Jewish day of worship and rest, called “the Sabbath”, took place on a Saturday.  So Sunday, being the first day after the Sabbath, was the “first day of the week”.

5. Only an empty tomb, together with post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief

The fifth argument is that the empty tomb, only in unison with the post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief. Jewish beliefs on the resurrection, despite the varying views on the matter, agreed on a single point — that the resurrection was a physical and bodily phenomenon.[80] Therefore, resurrection belief presupposes an empty tomb.  

Without confirmation that the tomb was empty, realistic sightings of Jesus would have been classified as hallucinations or visions, which, as scholar Wright notes, were well-known enough in the ancient world.[81] Visions, in fact, are mentioned in the Old and New Testament (see Dan 7:13-14, Acts 9:12, Rev 9:17, etc). Furthermore, if we are talking about interpreting an appearance of Jesus with no confirmation of an empty tomb as some sort of vindication of his personhood or identity, then this very likely would have been interpreted as spiritual assumption.  As critical scholar Dave Alison explains:

[P]erceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not, by themselves, have supplied such reason [belief in resurrection].  For there was more than one way for Jews to speak about postmortem vindication and to interpret the presence of one dead. Given the widespread dualism of the time, we would expect Jesus’ disciples to think in terms of the triumph of his soul or spirit and to imagine his resurrection, like that of everyone else dead and buried, as still belonging to the immediate future [The Jews believe that everyone would be raised by God on the last day. They call this event the “general resurrection”].

The ascent of a soul to heaven and its vindication were not the same as resurrection of the dead.  As already observed, the Testament of Job relates that its hero’s soul was taken to heaven immediately after his death, while his body was being prepared for burial (52:20-12).  The story of Moses’ end in Deut. Rab. 11:10 is similar, and in later church history we find that when people see the souls of saints, they speak of ascension, not resurrection.  The first Christians, to the contrary, did something else. They proclaimed that an individual had already been raised from the dead, that the general resurrection had begun (1 Cor 15:23).  Why? One good answer to the riddle is that they believed his tomb was empty. If there is another good answer, I have yet to stumble across it.[82]

On the other hand, if there were no post-mortem appearances and only an empty tomb, this would not produce resurrection belief either.  It would have been interpreted, of course, as evidence of grave robbing. However, with an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus, we have a strong and coherent reason for the emergence of resurrection belief in the earliest Christian community. 

However, as I will argue later in the section “Origin of the Christian Faith”, an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances would still not be sufficient to produce resurrection belief — if the post mortem appearances were hallucinations or visions.

6. The resurrection was proclaimed  in Jerusalem

The sixth argument is that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem — the very city where Jesus was executed and  buried. This could not have been possible unless Jesus’ tomb was empty. The Jewish leadership would have done everything in their power to produce Jesus’ body in order to squash early Christian proclamation in the resurrection.  As scholar Paul Althus notes, the resurrection “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned…In Jerusalem, one could not think of the grave as empty without being certain, without there being testimony, that it had been found empty”.[83] The fact that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem, is compelling evidence that the Jewish leadership was unable to produce Jesus’ body, because his tomb was empty. 

7. The discovery of the empty tomb by women is highly probable

The seventh argument is that it is highly likely that the discovery of the empty tomb by women is historical.  There are three reasons supporting this event’s historicity. 

One, if the empty tomb narrative were fabricated, it is much more probable that more prominent disciples of Jesus would have been chosen to make the discovery.  However, instead of Peter or any of the other Eleven discovering the empty tomb, we have Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and other women.  As scholar Allison comments:

That it should be these devoted but humble and relatively insignificant followers who are given the credit for the discovery in every gospel is historically impressive.[84]

Two, in Jewish culture, women were viewed in a lowly light and occupied a low rung on the social ladder. To illustrate this point, consider the following Jewish writings, which show that women were held in low esteem, so much so that (according to the latter two writings) their testimony was considered unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law (per the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Talmud, with the latter source even equating the testimony of a woman to a robber).

Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women. (Talmud, Sotah 19a)

The world cannot exist without males and without females — happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females. (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b)

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probably that they may not speak truth, either out of hope or gain, or fear of punishment. (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)

Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid, also they are not valid to offer.  This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman. (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8) 

If the empty tomb were a Christian invention, it is extremely difficult to see why women were made the primary witnesses.  As scholar Wright notes, the idea of making women primary witnesses to the empty tomb is, “from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot”.  However, Wright continues “But to us as historians, this kind of thing is gold dust.  The early Christians would never, never have made this up”.[85] If the empty tomb narrative were created for apologetic purposes (i.e. proof of the resurrection), men would have been made the main witnesses, since their testimony was credible and would pose no unnecessary difficulties in evangelization efforts.  It must be noted that women were also viewed lowly in Roman culture (they were viewed so in the ancient world by and large). In fact, in the second century, the gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb was derided by pagan and fierce critic of Christianity, Celsus, who said that the testimony of the event came from a “half-frantic woman” (referring to Mary Magdalene, who as a witness, is portrayed most prominently among the contingent of women in the gospels).[86]  

Three, if the empty tomb narrative were invented, it is difficult to see why it would paint the female disciples in a favorable light in contrast to the male disciples — for the appearance of the women coincides with the absence of men. Why would a fabricator, as a member of the early Church, show women disciples being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb, carrying out an act of piety while the male disciples, for whatever reason, remained indoors (possibly lying low in fear of the Jews). Why would a fabricated narrative paint the male disciples, the leaders of the early Church, in a less than optimal light, and behind the superior behavior of the women even? The fact that women followers of Jesus, and not men, are recognized as being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb is another point in favor of this event’s historicity.  

8. Early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb

The eight argument is that early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb.  Matthew records that the response of the Jewish leadership to the early Christian movement was that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:13)This accusation is further attested to in two more sources.  The first of these sources is Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca.  155-170 AD). In this Christian apologetic against Judaism, Justin captures the Jewish perception of Christianity through Trypho:

You have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he was risen from the dead and ascended to heaven”.[87]

The second source is Tertullian’s De Spectaculis (ca.  197-202 AD), in which he also mentions the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body:

 This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen…[88]

Interestingly, Tertullian also mentions another amusing theory circling around in Jewish circles during his time, that a gardener stole Jesus’ body in order to protect his plants from visitors:

…or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crows of visitants![89]

As amusing as the gardener theory is, a variant of it is also used in the 6th-11th century Jewish polemic, Toledot Yeshu, which aimed to defame Jesus.[90]  In the end, the fact that all early Jewish polemics presuppose an empty tomb provides significant support for the event’s historicity.

Conclusion on the empty tomb

All in all, the above 8 arguments come together to form a very potent case for the historicity of the empty tomb and it is for this reason that its historicity is granted by the majority of scholars. 

As noted by prominent scholar James Dunn:

As a matter of historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence points firmly to the conclusion that Jesus’ tomb was found empty and that its emptiness was a factor in the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus.[91]

Scholar Geza Vermes, a non-religious Jew, comments:

In the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike – and even the disciples themselves – are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.[92] 

Historian Paul Meier comments:

If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter.[93]

Atheist historian and classicist Michael Grant comments:

Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition [(i.e. the angel)] as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb.[94]

D.   The origin of the Christian faith

The emergence of belief in Jesus’ resurrection within the earliest Christian community must also be explained, since it differed radically from Jewish resurrection belief.[95] Although Christians may point to Jesus’ resurrection as an event in history as the origin of the disciples’ resurrection belief, critics must explain how belief in Jesus’ resurrection emerged among the disciples given their Jewish worldview. As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ resurrection differed from Jewish resurrection belief radically.  Explaining Jewish resurrection belief, Craig says:

In Jewish thought, the resurrection always occurred (1) at the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all people, not just an isolated individual.[96]

The Jews referred to this future resurrection event by God at the end of the world and to all people as the “general resurrection”.  Jesus’ resurrection, in contrast to this belief, occurred within history and to a single person. In this sense, Jesus’ resurrection was conceptually, a dramatic departure from Jewish belief.

When it comes to the first point, of Jewish belief in the resurrection as occurring at the end of the world, this is seen in the gospels themselves.  In John 11, Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus would rise again and Martha responds by saying “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).  Hearing Jesus’ words, Martha was thinking about the general resurrection.  In another instance, in Mark 9:9-10, after Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus foretells his own resurrection, but his words flew over the heads of his disciples who did not yet understand what he was saying: 

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”.

The disciples here were rightfully confused because the general resurrection was an event that would happen at the end of history.  Yet, Jesus was telling them not to tell anyone what they had just seen (e.g. his transfiguration) until he had risen from the dead.  The disciples were wondering how they could even tell anyone of their witness to Jesus’ transfiguration if they would be dead until the general resurrection.  The fact that they were thinking of the general resurrection in the light of Jesus’ statements is confirmed by their following question to Jesus: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11).   In Judaism, the prophet Elijah is said to have been bodily assumed into heaven, where he would remain until his return prior to Judgement Day.  The disciples could not grasp the idea of a resurrection occurring within history and prior to the end of the world — because such a concept simply did not exist in Judaism.  As noted by prominent scholar Joachim Jeremias: 

Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history.  Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus.  Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life.  In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to glory as an event of history.[97]

As for the second point, in Jewish thought, resurrection always referred to a future event that pertained to all people.  They had no conception of the resurrection of an isolated individual. As noted by another major scholar, Ulrich Wilckens:

For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as “First of those raised by God” (1 Cor.  15:20).[98]

In the above quote, Wilckens also observes that there was no connection between the individual believer’s future resurrection and the Messiah’s prior resurrection in ancient Judaism — because there existed no belief or expectation that the Messiah would rise from the dead.  This is why we find no similar cases to those of the disciples for Jesus. As noted by scholar Wright, the followers of Jewish messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) had followers who were strongly committed to the cause but in no case did we hear from any of these groups, following the execution of their leader, that he had been raised from the dead and that he really was the Messiah after all.[99] Wright invites us to suppose that the disciples were convinced, despite his execution and on other grounds, that Jesus was the Messiah: 

This would not have led the early disciples to say he had been raised from the dead.  A change in the meaning of “Messiah”, yes (since nobody in the first century supposed that the Messiah would die at the hands of pagans); but not an assertion of his resurrection.  No second-Temple Jewish texts speak of the Messiah being raised from the dead. Nobody would have thought of saying, “I believe that so-and-so really was the Messiah; therefore he must have been raised from the dead”.[100]

In the end, Jesus’ resurrection within the worldview of Judaism was a completely foreign concept.  As Canadian polymath Allister Mcgrath comments:

The sheer oddness of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus in human history, at a definite time and place, is all too easily overlooked by modern critics, even though it was obvious at the time.  The unthinkable appeared to have happened, and for that very reason demanded careful attention. Far from merely fitting into the popular expectations of the pattern of resurrection, what happened to Jesus actually contradicted it.  The sheer novelty of the Christian position at the time has been obscured by two thousand years’ experience of the Christian understanding of the resurrection – yet at the time it was wild: unorthodox and radical.[101]

As a result, belief in Jesus’ resurrection begs the question — from where did this belief come from? Is a combination of an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus enough to produce resurrection belief?  As Craig compellingly argues, the answer is no.

The answer is no, since hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new.  Therefore, given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples, were they to project hallucinations of Jesus, would have seen Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the resurrection.  And such visions would not have caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At the most, it would have only led the disciples to say Jesus had been translated or [bodily] assumed into heaven, not raised from the dead. In the Old Testament, figures such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24;Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-18) were portrayed as not having died but as having been translated directly into heaven.[102]

The disciples, seeing an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus, would have concluded that he had been bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them.  They would not have concluded that a resurrection occurred within history, prior to the end of the world, and to a single person — since such an idea was completely unheard of within their Jewish worldview. The fact that they did proclaim resurrection, however, is amazing. As noted by scholar Dunn:

For them to have understood that they were seeing the crucified Jesus as risen from the dead rather than as (simply!) translated or glorified was quite extraordinary.  That it led them to the conclusion that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that Jesus had been raised as the beginning of the end-time general resurrection of the dead, was exceptional and unprecedented. That is why I am [confident] that this first Christian interpretation deserves a very high respect, and that Christians, on its basis, need have no qualms about affirming their faith in Jesus as risen.[103]

In the end, it seems then that on this point, critics are left with an unsolved puzzle. 


To proceed to part 3 of this series, click here.


55. In his 2004 survey of scholarship on the empty tomb, Habermas records that roughly 75 percent of scholars favor one or more arguments for the empty tomb, while 25 percent favor one or more arguments against it (Habermas included scholars who appear to be leaning in either direction even with an absence of a direct statement for their own position).  Interestingly, Habermas also notes that the listings of scholars on this issue are divided along theological “party lines”. Commenting on this, scholar Licona notes: “This may indicate that scholars are allowing their horizons to exert excessive influence on their historical work — an observation that does not surprise us in our investigation of the resurrection of Jesus” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg.  462).

Although a significant number of scholars dissent against the empty tomb, Licona classifies it as a “second-order fact” due to the fair-moderate majority in favor of the empty tomb, as well as the small but noteworthy group of scholars who recognize the historicity of the empty tomb but argue for a natural explanation for it in their works.  

It is worth noting however, that recent scholarship has only pointed in the direction of the historicity of the empty tomb.

For scholars against the empty tomb, Hengels (1977) made the case that Jesus’ body was probably thrown in a mass grave, and eaten by dogs and wild animals. This view was further popularized by  John Dominic Crossan (1994), who made some intriguing statements such as “those who cared did not know where it was, and those who knew did not care”, when explaining what happened to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. Bart Ehrman (2014) also stated that he changed his position when it comes to the empty tomb, following Hengels and Crossan. Unlike Hengels and Crossan however, Ehrman remains more agnostic on the issue. Nevertheless, he says that it is more probable than not that Jesus did not receive a proper burial.

The problem with the skeptical scholarly position on the matter is that Hegel’s work is dated, and neither Crossan or Ehrman are experts on 1st century Jewish burial practices or the crucifixtion. Ehrman, the most recent of the three, is also disappointing because he did not engage with any of the more recent scholarship in support of the empty tomb at all (to be clear, literally zero engagement).

On the contrary, scholarly works arguing for the historicity of the empty tomb (and that put forward new evidence) have only increased in recent times. See the works of Myllykoski (2002), McCane (2003), Evans (2005), Charlesworth (2007), Magness (2007, 2011) and Cook (2011). Among these scholars, Magness and Cook are especially noteworthy, since Magness is an expert on 1st century Jewish burial practices, and a Jew herself, while Cook is an expert on the crucifixion.

In addition to all of this, Gary Habermas, the leading scholar on the resurrection, will be releasing his multi-volume (5,500+ pages in total), magnum opus work on the resurrection in the near future (the writing is finished, it is currently in the editing process). Included in this future work of his will be a comprehensive treatment of the empty tomb.

A survey of recent scholarship on the subject shows that the momentum of is clearly and increasingly in favor of the historicity of empty tomb.

56. The reason why the empty tomb is not explicitly stated in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is because it is a summary statement of the basic events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.  This is why the specifics of the events (e.g. how Jesus died, how he was buried, what happened during the instances wherein he appeared after his death, etc) are not explained. Elaboration of the events would be carried out elsewhere (in preaching or in other writings that intend to give fuller accounts). 

As the esteemed scholar Dave Allison notes: “1 Cor 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller forms elsewhere” (Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  235).

Martin Hengel, another major scholar comments: “A Jew or Gentile God-fearer, hearing this formal, extremely abbreviated report for the first time, would have difficulty understanding it; at the least a number of questions would certainly occur to him, which Paul could only answer through the narration and explanation of events.  Without clarifying delineation, the whole thing would surely sound enigmatic to ancient ears, even absurd” (Begrabnis, pg. 127).

57. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  321
58. Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, pg.  225
59. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, New Century Bible, p.  273

60. Craig in a Youtube video entitled “Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus” says: “Most scholars today agree with this [that Mark had a source he used].  Any reconstruction of this source is controversial, and not widely accepted… That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony”.

61. Craig, #103 Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb, par. 4. Retrieved from: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/independent-sources-for-jesus-burial-and-empty-tomb/

62. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg.  765-766.

63.  Bauckham notes that many scholars date the pre-Markan passion source very early, and at the latest, the 40s (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 243). 

It is also worth noting the views of scholar Pesch, who dates the early passion source within 7 years after the death of Jesus — for his reasons for doing so are interesting.  In the early passion source, the high priest Caiphas is not mentioned by name, he is simply referred to as “the high priest” (unlike Matthew and Luke). This happens in a passion narrative that is replete with names, while in Mark’s gospel, the naming of individuals is not standard fare.  Caiphas not being named implies, nearly necessitates even according to Pesch, that Caiaphas was still the high priest when the pre-Markan story was formulated, since back then, there would have been no need to mention his name as a result of familiarity. It would be like how someone could refer to “the President” today as a matter of familiarity since everyone would know who “the President” was.  Since Caiaphas was the high priest from 18-37 A.D., Mark’s early passion source must be dated within 7 years after the death of Jesus. Pesch also notes that this familiarity with Caiaphas in the early passion source is also found with Pontius Pilate — who is referred to as “Pilate” without his title of governor being stated (unlike Luke and Matthew). If Pesch is correct, then the value of this early passion source as historical evidence is extremely valuable, similar to that of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition.

64. Scholar Rudolph Pesch, an expert on the gospel of Mark in particular, notes these reasons in his Das Markusevangelium for the early passion source originating in Jerusalem (Kok, “A Passion Narrative from the Jerusalem Church”, par. 1) .

65. Wilckens, Auferstehung, pg.  61: “The passion story could not have ended with the death and burial of Jesus without assurance of victory; the discovery of the empty tomb by the women was part of the passion story”.

66.  Bultmann, History, pg.  309

67. There is also more evidence from word usage and variances in the accounts that the empty tomb is multiply attested.

As Craig says when it comes to word usage: “In general, only 35 of Matthew’s 136 words in the empty tomb are found in Mark’s 138 words.  Similarly, only 16 of Luke’s 123 words are found in Mark’s account. Moreover, Matthew and Luke have only a dozen words in common, which shows the independence of their traditions” (Reasonable Faith, pg. 366). 

As scholar Stein says on the variances in the empty tomb accounts: “The very variation in the different narratives of the empty tomb, which are in one sense embarrassing, argues that these accounts stem from separate and independent traditions, all of which witness to the tomb’s being empty” (Was the Tomb Really Empty?).  

68.  Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  320

69. See Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37 below:

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.  But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.  Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah [referring to Psalm 16:8-11], that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it (Acts 2:29-32).

“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.  But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay (Acts 13:36-37).

Acts 2:29-32 says that Jesus’ body did not see decay and that “God has raised this Jesus  to life. The mention of Jesus’ body “not decaying” implies an empty tomb because the reason why Jesus’ body did not decay is because he was raised up — no longer being dead but alive, and leaving an empty tomb behind him.  There is also a possible parallel in the verses in question between King David being buried in a tomb and Jesus being buried in a tomb.

In Acts 13:36-37, King David is again related to Jesus.  In these verses, King David is mentioned to have been buried, and his body is said to have suffered decay.  However, in contrast to David, the verses state that the “one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay”.  Like the previous passage in Acts, the mention of Jesus’ body not decaying implies an empty tomb for the same reason, Jesus’ body did not decay because he rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him. 

70. There is good evidence, however, of further independent attestation for Jesus’ burial by Joseph in Matthew and Luke. There are differences in the accounts that are not easily explained as editorial changes (e.g. Mark’s “tomb which had been hewn out of rock” vs. Matthew’s “tomb which he hewed in the rock”). There are also instances wherein Matthew and Luke agree in their wording against Mark (e.g. “This man went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” and “wrapped it in linen”).

71. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1240-41

72. Catchpole, Resurrection, 199. 

Reinforcing this point by Catchpole, other scholars put forward other reasons for why the location of Jesus’ tomb must have been known.  These reasons are (1) the Crucifixion was a public event and (2) Jesus was a religious sensation whose Crucifixion would have been watched by many, and whose death and resulting burial would have been the subject of street gossip.  As noted by prominent scholars Brown and Allison:

“It is inconceivable that they showed no concern about what happened to Jesus after his arrest…The crucifixion itself was public, and nothing suggests that the burial was secret. (Brown, The Death of the Messiah, pg.  14)

There is, finally, a general presumption that probably favors Mark’s tradition about Joseph of Arimathea.  Crucifixions were public events. Intended as deterrents, they were set up to call attention to themselves.  Surely it was not otherwise with Jesus: he was publicly displayed as crucified in order “to deter resistance or revolt.” When one adds that Jesus was surely some sort of religious sensation whose fate would have been of interest not just to sympathizers, that his torture would even have been of entertainment value to some, it is hard to imagine that there was no cloud of witnesses.  That the Gospels say there were passersby is no reason to think that there were not. It is instead quite likely that people, friendly, hostile, and indifferent, witnessed Jesus’ end and its immediate aftermath, and that his crucifixion and burial became immediately the stuff of street gossip, so that anyone who wanted to learn what happened could just have asked around. Crossan [an agnostic scholar] says that those who knew did not care and that those who cared did not know.  My guess is that most everyone knew whether they cared or not”.  (Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 362)

73. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 168

74. Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg.  171

75.   Robinson, The Human Face of God, 1973
76.  Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg.  367 Bode, Easter, pg. 161
77.  Gospel of Peter 8:35-42  
78.   Bode, Easter, pg.  161
79. Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg.  366

80. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  324: “Within Judaism was a variety of eschatological beliefs and so no “norm”; but when Jews in the Holy Land spoke of resurrection, they were, from everything we know, thinking about corpses and bones, graves and ossuaries”.

81. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  686: “Sightings of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves [without an empty tomb], would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well known enough in the real world”. 

Wright, Surprised by Hope, 69: “If the disciples had simply seen, or thought they had seen, someone they took to be Jesus, that would not by itself have generated the stories we have.  Everyone in the ancient world took it for granted that people sometimes had strange experiences involving encounters with the dead, particularly the recently deceased. They knew at least as much as we do about such visions, about ghosts and dreams (elsewhere, Wright specifically states that “ancient literature is full of it”) — and the fact that such things often occurred within the context of bereavement or grief .  They had language for this, and it wasn’t “resurrection”.

82. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg.  325
83. Althaus, Die Wahrheit des kirchlichen Ostergaluens, pgs.  25-26
84. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg.  326

85. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  207.

The strength of this argument, however, cannot be understated.  Listing other prominent scholars on the issue:

Adela Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel, pg.  127: “[On the empty tomb] The status of women in the ancient world was such that a story fabricated as proof or apology would not be based on the testimony of women”.

James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg. 832-833: “Mary has the honour of reporting the empty tomb to the other disciples — apostola apostolorum.  Yet, as is well known, in Middle Eastern society of the time women were not regarded as reliable witnesses… Why then attribute such testimony to women — unless that was what was remembered as being the case? In contrast, can it be seriously argued that such a story would be contrived in the cities and/or village communities of first-century Palestine, a story which would have to stand up before public incredulity and prejudice?”

C.  F. D.  Moule, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, pg.  9: “…it is difficult to explain how a story that grew up late and took shape merely in accord with the supposed demands of apologetic came to be framed in terms almost exclusively of women witnesses, who, as such, were notoriously invalid witnesses according to Jewish principles of evidence.  The later and the more fictitious the story, the harder it is to explain why the apostles are not brought to the forefront as witnesses.”

86. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  327

Atheist scholar Bart Ehrman notes the impressiveness of Mary Magdalene being named in different independent sources: “As a historian, I am struck by a certain consistency among otherwise independent witnesses in placing Mary Magdalene both at the cross and at the tomb on the third day.  If this is not a historical datum but something that a Christian storyteller just made up and then passed along to others, how is it that this specific bit of information has found its way into accounts that otherwise did not make use of one another? Mary’s presence at the cross is found in Mark (and in Luke and Matthew, which used Mark) and also in John, which is independent of Mark.  More significant still, all of our early Gospels—not just John and Mark (with Matthew and Luke as well) but also the Gospel of Peter, which appears to be independent of all of them—indicate that it was Mary Magdalene who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. How did all of these independent accounts happen to name exactly the same person in this role? It seems hard to believe that this just happened by a way of a fluke of storytelling.  It seems much more likely that, at least with the traditions involving the empty tomb, we are dealing with something actually rooted in history” (Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History & Legend).

The fact that Mary features prominently in the accounts indicates that she did stand out in an event in history (i.e. informing the disciples about what had happened at the tomb and witnessing the first post-mortem appearance of Jesus), and was, as a result, remembered and recognized for it by the early church.

87. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108
88. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108
89. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, chapter 30

90. “Diligent search was made and he [Jesus] was not found in the grave where he had been buried.  A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden” – Toledot Yeshu quoted by Butt, “The Case of The Empty Tomb”, par.  4. Retrieved from: https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=10&article=896

91. Dunn, Jesus, The Evidence, pg.  68
92. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pg.  41

93. Independent, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif., Saturday, April 21, 1973, p. A-10.

94.  Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pg.  176

95. The fullest and most sophisticated development of this point (the origin of the Christian faith) is N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. In this magisterial work, Wright argues for the historicity of the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb from the fact of the origin of the Christian faith alone. This understates the evidence for both the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb but it does go to show how powerful this fourth point is.

96. Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg.  129

97. Jeremias, Die alteste Schicht der Oseruberlieferung, pg.  194
98. Wilckens, Auferstehung, Themen der Theologie 4, pg.  131

99. Wright, videotaped lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary,  November 1999.

It must be noted that these messianic movements were both perceived and claimed, though mostly the former. The only leader of these messianic movements who we can say definitively claimed to be the Messiah is Simon bar Kochba.

100. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  25.
101.  McGrath, The Resurrection, par.  4. Retrieved from: https://www.bethinking.org/resurrection/the-resurrection
102. Craig, The Son Rises, pg. 132
103. Dunn, In Grateful Dialogue, pg.  321-322.